ICT is becoming ever more ubiquitous within further and higher education, for e-learning, in research, e-administration and other ways. This creates many benefits, including ones of direct relevance to sustainable development such as improving accessibility for disadvantaged groups, and reducing environmental impacts by substituting virtual for physical activities (as when conferencing substitutes for face-to-face meetings).

Sustainable ICT in further and higher education: SusteIT final report

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ICT is becoming ever more ubiquitous within further and higher education, for e-learning, in research, e-administration and other ways. This creates many benefits, including ones of direct relevance to sustainable development such as improving accessibility for disadvantaged groups, and reducing environmental impacts by substituting virtual for physical activities (as when conferencing substitutes for face-to-face meetings).

ICT in UK further and higher education has a large environmental footprint

However, the benefits of ICT are partially offset by ‘hidden’ environmental, and, on occasion, social costs. A scaling up of findings at the University of Sheffield, Lowestoft College and City College, Norwich, suggests that UK universities and colleges as a whole:

  • Utilise nearly 1,470,000 computers, 250,000 printers and 240,000 servers
  • Will have ICT-related electricity bills of around £116m in 2009, and
  • Are indirectly emitting over 500,000t of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from this electricity use

The production, and disposal, of ICT equipment also involves the release of many hazardous substances; consumes large quantities of energy and water; generates large amounts of waste; and sometimes involves dangerous and exploitative working practices (discarded computers from UK universities have been seen, for example, at unsafe recycling sites in Africa).

There is a growing consensus amongst experts, leading ICT suppliers and policy makers, that the combination of rapid ICT growth and negative environmental impacts of the kind described, make current ICT practices and trajectories unsustainable. Several studies have suggested that ICT is already responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, and that its relative share will increase further.

Why further and higher education needs more sustainable ICT

Although our project has identified (and highlighted through case studies) examples of positive actions for sustainable ICT within the sector, these are not representative, and more needs to be done. Almost all respondents to a survey we conducted felt that it is important to make ICT more sustainable, and three-quarters stated that it is very important. The reasons why include: demands from stakeholders; increasingly stringent regulation (such as the Carbon Reduction Commitment and EU Energy Using Products Directive); opportunities for financial savings and reduction of risk; opportunities for new areas of teaching and research; and enhancing the sector’s reputation.

Taking action – integrating different time perspectives

The Government has a long-term target of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, which requires radical changes in all areas of economic and social life. It is therefore probable that sustainable ICT in 2050, or even 2020, will be very different from that today. Devices may contain radically different materials; their environmental impacts may be tracked through all stages of supply so that it is easy to distinguish more sustainable variants; computing tasks could be related to environmental impacts; e reading may have replaced paper in many applications; cloud computing may be ubiquitous and demonstrably superior in environmental terms to current computing models; many data centres may be utilising renewable energy; and many meetings and learning sessions may be virtual.

In the short - medium term, however, the sector must work with sub-optimal technologies, inadequate information and poorly developed processes – and limited leverage with suppliers – in addressing ‘upstream’ environmental impacts. It therefore makes sense to focus initially on reducing the resource consumption (eg electricity, paper) of its own ICT activities as this is within its control, and can create financial as well as environmental benefits.

Taking action – minimising ICT impacts

Actions in individual institutions will depend upon organisational circumstances and IT configurations. It is important that sustainability is always considered fully when strategic IT decisions are being made as:

  • ‘Thin client’ approaches are already reducing lifetime use of energy and materials, as well as providing other benefits, in a number of institutions, and should be considered for any applications that do not require large scale computing power
  • There is great potential for distributed computing and/or outsourced/shared service solutions to increase the currently very low utilisation levels of PCs and servers, and
  • Growing volumes of data mean that decisions (or lack of decisions) about storage have considerable energy implications – more rigorous information on life cycle management is needed, to eliminate storage of data that are no longer required, or to increase the proportion that utilises low energy storage, rather than ‘always on’ spinning disks
  • There is enormous scope to create much more sustainable data centres through: purchasing servers with lower power requirements; increasing utilisation rates through consolidation and virtualisation; and by changing physical aspects such as layouts, cooling and power supply, so that their energy ‘overhead’ above that used by servers is only 20–30%, compared to the current 40–100%. In the medium term, greater use of renewable or low carbon energy supply is feasible. This could be facilitated by a move to shared service data centres if these enable more optimal choices of location for renewable energy and/or economies of scale in cooling

This study estimates that personal computing accounts for around 50% of ICT-related electricity consumption in universities and colleges. Much of this is wasted, because many devices: are energy inefficient; are often left switched on when not in use (eg at night or in holiday periods), or in more active states than they need to be for much of the time; are considerably under-utilised even when they are in use; and are often more powerful than is required for the activities they are undertaking.

A strategic approach to personal computing is required to reduce this wastage, and to meet student and staff needs in the most cost-effective and sustainable way possible. This requires a cross-functional team bringing together (at least) IT staff, users, and energy or environmental managers, and chaired by a relatively senior manager. Key elements of their work will be: auditing of the computing footprint within the institution; defining user needs and matching appropriately; seriously examining low impact alternatives (such as thin client); and building awareness and support amongst users. Actions are also needed to:

  • Purchase appropriate hardware and software, and especially models which are – at a minimum – Energy Star 4.0 compliant, and preferably exceed its requirements considerably
  • Reduce energy consumption, for example, by increased powering down of devices, and
  • Increase longevity through extending refresh cycles, and avoiding software-induced replacement

Electronic printing and copying accounts for at least 10–16% of ICT-related electricity consumption, and survey respondents were printing an average 224 sheets a week, or 10,000 annually. This sums to well over £1m of printing and copying costs in larger universities. Volumes, costs and environmental impacts are generally rising, and ‘out of control’ in some institutions. No more than half of those responding to the SusteIT survey were undertaking any of three key measures for sustainable printing: replacing single with multifunctional devices; setting duplex (double-sided) printing as a default; and use of 100% recycled paper. Other measures to reduce the energy consumption and environmental impacts of printing and copying include:

  • Document and print management, including: development of a green printing strategy; maximising print substitution; effective document management; consolidation of devices; and building user support
  • Purchasing appropriate equipment: involving careful definition of basic equipment needs, using relevant procurement standards, and assessing vendor commitment to sustainability
  • Reducing energy consumption: by enabling and using power management, and by switching equipment off to a greater degree; and
  • Reducing paper and consumables usage: by purchasing recycled and/or lighter weight paper, encouraging more paper efficient printing, and other means

Taking action – maximising beneficial ICT applications

A recent study has estimated that ICT applications could reduce global CO2 equivalent emissions in 2020 by 15%, and avoid approximately 5t of CO2 emissions for each tonne that they generate through production, use and disposal of equipment. It highlights the potential of two areas of relevance to further and higher education. The energy consumption of buildings can be greatly reduced by making them more intelligent. And ‘dematerialisation’ can substitute carbon-intense activities such as meetings, or teaching sessions involving travel, with low carbon equivalents, such as videoconferencing. One study has found that distance learning courses reduced energy consumption and carbon emissions by 90% compared to conventional campus-based ones.

The sector has some examples of good practice with regard to buildings, and there is a high level of interest in taking more action. Our survey also found that 60% of respondents would like to do more work remotely, and that 77% felt that there was scope for more use of videoconferencing. The sector currently has a sophisticated videoconferencing infrastructure, which is under-utilised. Better marketing and other measures could create a considerable growth in uptake without excessive additional investment.

Taking action – management

Sustainable IT is not achieved overnight, but requires long-term commitment and change. This in turn requires its embedding into activities and systems, both within IT departments and in other areas of the institution. Our research identified a number of barriers – survey respondents felt that the most important were: time/staff resource constraints; lack of coordination between different parts of the organisation; budgetary constraints; lack of guidance on how to reduce environmental and social impacts; lack of information on environmental and social impacts of equipment/services; lack of choices on type of ICT equipment that can be purchased; lack of awareness of sustainable ICT issues amongst staff/departments; and lack of whole life costing or consideration of environmental impacts during the procurement process. Experience in other areas of environmental improvement suggests that overcoming these barriers requires:

  • Clear organisational commitments, and effective implementation processes such as greater responsibility for energy consumption (our survey found that less than half of the respondents from IT departments were aware of the energy costs associated with their activities)
  • A continuous improvement approach within IT departments, eg by setting up environmental and sustainability champion(s), and by more measurement, targeting and monitoring, and
  • More effective measurement of total cost of ownership, as current procurement decisions often ignore or underestimate energy or other environmental costs

Taking action – sector bodies

Funding councils, JISC and other sector bodies must provide more support to institutions in their transition to sustainable ICT because: some relevant expertise or knowledge may be impossible for institutions (especially smaller ones) to develop in practice; some actions can only be accomplished at regional or national level (as with effective procurement agreements) or require a critical mass of activity in a number of institutions (as with videoconferencing); and many actions require cross-functional collaboration, which can be facilitated by ‘top down’ national initiatives involving relevant professional bodies. Such actions can be justified both by the importance of sustainable ICT, and also because they will be synergistic with other strategic drivers of further and higher education. For example:

  • Moves towards whole life costing of ICT purchases, and greater budgetary responsibility for energy costs by IT departments, would contribute to the objectives of achieving greater value for money, and cost transparency in research and teaching
  • The potential capacity constraints created by high electricity consumption in data centres (and other areas) should often be an important aspect of institutional risk assessments
  • Some of the innovations to achieve greater energy efficiency could be best achieved on a shared service basis, and
  • The capacity of work-related applications to provide better work–life balance and other personal and social benefits has many connections with the well-being agenda
    Table 10 (at the end of Chapter 6) identifies eight possible forms of support – strengthening capacity; providing funding; giving direction; strengthening grant conditions; strengthening coordination; strengthening sustainable procurement; funding exemplar projects; and financing relevant investigation and research – which could be provided by sector bodies, and makes detailed recommendations as to how they can be achieved. 

Project details

The study took place between January and December 2008 and was based on: desk research; interviews with many practitioners and experts within and outside the sector; an online survey, which gathered 183 responses, from 49 institutions; and discussions at five workshops, which were attended by almost 300 people. It is accompanied by: three detailed reports on data centres, personal computing, and printing; over 20 case studies; a detailed audit of ICT use at the University of Sheffield; and two open source tools. One enables an energy and carbon footprinting of ICT use, and the other analyses the environmental and financial implications of thin client computing. During 2008 the project team made over 20 presentations, to almost 1,000 people, on their work and findings. They have also worked with the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges to gain Scottish Funding Council support for a follow-on project, based on the footprinting tool, and with the Regional Support Centres to gain JISC funding for three sustainable ICT conferences in 2009.

Report available electronically only. Download the full report below.

Documents & Multimedia

Peter James (HEEPI) and Lisa Hopkinson (SustainIT)
Publication Date
14 January 2009
Publication Type
Strategic Themes