Researchers Question Value

Feb. 11, 2011

Calculating your new computer server’s contribution to your company’s carbon footprint may be more difficult than you think, according to the results of a recent study by Carnegie Mellon’s Christopher Weber, an adjunct professor in the university’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a research staff member at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

The study indicates that the calculation of carbon footprints for products is often riddled with large uncertainties, particularly related to the use of electronics.

A cache of variables, from production and shipping to the technology used in creating a product, can alter the accuracy of carbon footprint labeling, according to Weber.

Weber and his team studied an IBM computer server. "We found that the use phase of the server accounted for an estimated 94% of the total greenhouse gas emissions associated with the product," he says. "This finding confirmed the importance of IBM’s ongoing efforts to increase energy efficiency of its server products and the data centers where servers are used."

While the importance of server energy efficiency on the product’s overall carbon footprint was confirmed, the study also highlighted the large uncertainties in quantifying the server’s carbon footprint, due to power generation variables.

"Variability in the electricity mixes of different markets lead to vastly different impacts of product use and greenhouse gas emissions in different geographic locations," he explains. "Further complex systems requiring integrated circuits and several generations of technology increase the uncertainty of carbon footprint estimation for electronic goods."

Nonetheless, companies are seeking to estimate the carbon footprints of their products, as well as looking into further environmental impacts. "Given the increased interest in product carbon footprints, we need to continue to question the accuracy of carbon footprint techniques, especially for complex information technology products," Weber says. "At this point, carbon footprint estimation methodologies are not accurate enough to warrant putting footprint labels on most products."

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