How neutral is neutral?

21 July 2008

Last week, Tom Watson, UK minister for transformational government – a title that makes you wonder if there will soon be a minister for leveraged e-government solutions – claimed Whitehall computers would be carbon neutral within four years. Apparently it would be achieved by switching them off more often. This must be some use of term 'carbon neutral' I haven't previously encountered.

Unless the plan is to run all of Whitehall's machines off solar panels, nuclear or wind energy alone, it's hard to see this plan being achievable without some serious massaging of the numbers. It's no bad thing that Watson wants to cuts the energy usage of government computers but does touting the target as being carbon neutral do anyone any favours. Because, all the Cabinet Office has to do in 2012 is buy enough offsets to make it happen no matter what the actual outcome is. All that happens in that case is that the public ends up forking out for a plan that it did not really want for the sake of a slogan.

It's easy to understand the attraction of saying "carbon neutral by 2012" but the whole project is potentially meaningless without some idea of the kind of energy savings the UK government aims to make. They are not even sure of the definition of carbon neutral. From page 2 of the plan entitled "Greening Government ICT":

"Works is ongoing with Defra to define Carbon Neutrality and how this can be delivered...These targets will be reviewed in light of the ongoing work in the definition of carbon neutrality."

OK. So we don't know what the target is because we have no definition for the conceptual target. Excellent. And if the definition isn't what was expected, we alter the target. Or buy some more tree-planting vouchers, although that is, at least, not a popular option:

"Off-setting to be seen as a last resort and only through an accredited scheme in line with Defra's code of best practice."

Given that it's impossible to make a computer entirely carbon neutral – at least given the current energy-supply mix – would it not have more sense, if not as attractive-sounding, to come up with some hard targets on how many kilowatt hours per machine central Government was aiming to cut? An idea of how much is possible if you put your mind to it is going to be a lot more useful to business than a lesson in how much you can get away with by purchasing greenwash tokens and messing with definitions.

There are some good things that can come out of the exercise.

It would be good to at least get a guide of the realistic savings that turning off personal computers at night and consolidating servers will really have. One big problem with modern computers is working out when they are actually off. Hitting the switch on the front does not necessarily do a great deal if you have an electronic switch inside tide to a 200W power supply. The only way to be sure is to pull the plug on it – will civil servants do that?

When it comes to servers, will this be the point that outsourcing and the use of public-private partnership contracts come home to roost? It is fine consolidating servers in principle but buying in a few licences of VMWare may be the easy bit. Who will guarantee the latency figures on servers that are run at very high peak utilisation rates?

The plan is bad news for PC makers and Microsoft because it puts a brake on how often hardware gets upgraded. If the only reason to upgrade a machine is so it can run Vista, that does not put Microsoft in a good position. However, if it focuses attention on fixing existing business software rather than forcing everyone into a constant upgrade spiral, that's likely to be better long-term.