China and an Inefficient Truth

Somewhere in the CBD
Cafe crawling
1535 hrs.

Over in the UK, the environmental organization Global Action Plan has produced a sobering report on the amount of energy used by information technology. The full report, entitled An Inefficient Truth, along with a more quickly digestible executive summary, can be accessed at their website.

The general point is not new: IT is an acknowledged and growing source of energy suckage. What makes this report so compelling is the factoids that it cranks out.

Any fair assessment of the situation would suggest that all of this noise is driven in part by a growing group of enviro-luddists who generally see technology as something of an unnatural scourge. It would also be wrong to suggest that the industry is indifferent to the issue of the energy used by computers and other technology devices.

What I derive from the growing battle between green and tech is that the technology industries have much to gain by focusing their justly vaunted engineering prowess on making their companies, their processes, and their products meaningfully more sustainable.

Inefficient Informatization?

The central government has been actively encouraging the widespread adoption of information technology for over a decade, seeing in the microprocessor an answer to China’s discouraging productivity and an elixir for the nation’s ailing state-owned enterprises. The audience bought the messages: a survey completed by The Economist Intelligence Unit and SAP in 2004 found that something like 95% of China’s executives had seen the future of their businesses, and it was information technology.

If you believe the statistics, China is adding computing power and Internet users at remarkable rates. As “informatization” (the government’s term for economic transformation via information technology) spreads, China looks to follow the rest of the world down an economic path lined with power-sucking machines.

It remains remarkable that the nation’s policymakers have yet to draw a connection between their commitment to creating an innovation-based economy and the opportunity implicit in the nation’s (and the world’s) need for more efficient, more sustainable servers, laptops, desktops, and handhelds.

I do not expect that to last for long.

Efficient Action

There are some very intelligent people just below the director general level in the Ministry of Information Industries, in the State Environmental Protection Agency, the National Development and Reform Commission and other bodies who already see the connection. The challenge is forging them into a bloc to share information and to begin polling industry on what is possible in this regard. A good step would be putting An Inefficient Truth into the hands of one of these quiet crusaders and letting it circulate.


Meantime, this is a superb opportunity for companies who are already focused on dropping energy use in laptops and data centers to stand up and get proactive. Not to name names, but Intel, Apple, HP, Dell, and the leader of the greener computer pack – Lenovo – should publicly take the lead in calling on themselves and others to do more in China in this regard.

Efficient Informatization belongs alongside Independent Innovation. This is one area, however, where the foreigners can and should claim a lead, and use that as a starting point for action that would be both financially rewarding and environmentally responsible.

We need one more ingredient to fire up the greening of IT in China, and that would be an NGO who would be acceptable to all parties to coordinate the effort. My first thought comes to the United Nations Development Program, mostly because I worked with them on an electrical appliance efficiency program about eight years ago and their efforts have borne fruit.

Any ideas about who else might complete the triad?


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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