Nicholas Sheppard
Green computer screen

Amongst widespread publicity on topics like climate change, pollution and resource consumption, I'm sure many of us would like to think of ourselves as good environmental citizens. Many within the computing industry would be aware of issues like energy consumption and disposal/recycling of electronic waste, but with computers being so far removed from nature it's not immediately obvious what role the computing industry might play in the natural environment. In the following, I've divided research into computing and the natural environment into three broad categories:

  • reduction of the environmental impacts of computing devices themselves, sometimes known as green IT;
  • computer systems designed to support the environmental goals of non-computing activities, sometimes known as green information systems; and
  • the possibility for computer systems to replace resource-intensive activities such as manufacturing and travel.

Green IT

Computers consume resources in the form of the materials used to construct them and the energy used to power them, and produce waste products in the form of unwanted hardware and greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuelled generators. An enormous body of research exists on how resources and energy might be reduced—there is, after all, a simple economic motive to do this—and on what to do with electronic waste, so I can only touch the tip of an iceberg here.

Regarding energy consumption, the Association for Computing Machinery recently released a "TechBrief" on Computing and Carbon Emissions (2021) that sets out the state of play: data centres already account for 3% of the world's energy consumption; the computing resources required for artificial intelligence applications have been doubling every few months; the population of computing devices is exploding (75 billion by 2025); and blockchain applications have become very popular while becoming notorious for their energy consumption.

Roberto Verdecchia and colleagues, citing forecasts that computing will account for about 10% of the world's energy consumption by 2030, published a how-to article on green IT and green software in a recent issue of IEEE Software (2021). Based on interviews with professionals involved in the provision of computing infrastructure, they identify numerous strategies by which computing organisations might reduce their energy consumption, beginning with actions that can be taken right away (e.g. optimising power management settings), actions that might be taken within the next five years (e.g. developing more efficient domain-specific hardware), and actions that might be possible in the longer term (e.g. radical advances in hardware design).

Two main strands of research exist regarding the disposal of electronic waste: addressing the potential for toxic materials to be released into the environment (Pathak & Sushil, 2022) and methods of recovering and re-using valuable materials from unwanted electronic equipment (Rene et al., 2021). Of course we could also simply use fewer computing devices in the first place—but forecasts of the amount of electronic waste in the world are only going up (Forti et al., 2020).

Green information systems

While "green IT" usually refers to reducing the environmental impact of computing devices themselves, many researchers use "green information systems" to refer to the use of information systems to improve environmental outcomes across society as a whole. This includes software that optimises the use of resources within some physical system; computer systems that track resources consumed and/or waste created by physical systems; and computer systems that promote awareness of environmental issues.

Again, an enormous body of research exists on green information systems. Ha-Bin Lee's review (2020) covers sixty-four articles published over ten years, including system evaluations, studies of the factors that influence adoption of green information systems, the design of new systems, and opinion pieces. Lee observes that research in this space is dominated by work on energy efficiency, but says that significant opportunities exist for investigating how computer systems can influence individual environmental behaviour and how computer systems might support other environmental goals (notably biodiversity).

Can computers be an alternative to polluting activities?

Finally, another large body of research considers how the use of computers influences the environmental performance of societies a whole. Much of this literature is conjectural, speculating that telecommuting might reduce energy consumption compared to travelling to work, that electronic distribution of books, music and film might consume fewer resources than physical distribution of the same, and so on, with little hard evidence one way or the other (Beier et al., 2021).

Over 2020 and 2021, however, quite a few empirical studies have appeared on the impact of computing technology on environmental and other "sustainability" goals. Most say that increased availability of computing devices is associated with improved sustainability outcomes, but it isn't clear how this association comes about. Is it, for example, because computing technologies are associated with greater economic productivity, meaning high-technology societies are more able to afford education, health, and the like (Jaaprakash and Pillai, 2021)? Is it because computing technologies require fewer resources than the physical technologies they've replaced (Nchofoung and Asongu, 2021)? Or even because wealthy societies have simply "outsourced" pollution to poorer countries with weaker environmental laws (Anser et al., 2021)?


The research outlined above offers some hope that computers can contribute to positive environmental outcomes, though much scope exists for reining in the energy and materials consumed by computing devices, and properly evaluating the impact of computer systems supposed to support environmental goals.

Even if computers can improve environmental outcomes, whether they do in any given situation may depend on a complicated set of variables including the distance of the travel or volume of material they replace; the amount of energy they consume in doing so; the environmental cost of manufacturing the computers in the first place; and the way that the design of computer systems affects behaviour. An infamous example is the "paperless office" of the 1980s and 1990s, when electronic documents were supposed to replace paper ones—but the ease of printing documents means that offices are still awash with paper.


ACM Technology Policy Council (2021). Computing and Carbon Emissions, TechBriefs, 28 October 2021.

Muhammad Khalid Anser et al. (2021). The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Mitigating Carbon Emissions: Evidence From Panel Quantile Regression. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 28, 2021, pages 21065–21084.

Grischa Beier, Silke Niehoff and Mandy Hoffman (2021). Industry 4.0: A Step Towards Achieving the SDGs? A Critical Literature Review. Discover Sustainability 2, 2021, Article 22.

Vanessa Forti et al. (2020). The Global e-Waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, Flows, and the Circular Economy Potential, United Nations Institute for Training and Research, 2020.

Parvathi Jayaprakash and R. Radhakrishna Pillai (2022). The Role of ICT for Sustainable Development: A Cross-Country Analysis. European Journal of Development Research 34, 2022, pages 225–247.

Ha-Bin Lee (2020). Green Information Systems Research: A Decade in Review and Future Agenda. Informatization Policy 27(4), 2020, pages 3-23.

Tii Nchofoung and Simplice Asongu (2021). ICT for Sustainable Development: Global Comparative Evidence of Globalisation Thresholds. Working paper available from the Munich Personal RePec Archive, 2021.

Pankaj Pathak and Kumar Sushil (2022). Electronic Waste: An Emerging Contaminant in the Geo-environment. In: Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Challenges and Sustainable Practices, 2022, pages 275-286.

Eldon R. Rene et al. (2021). Electronic waste generation, recycling and resource recovery: Technological perspectives and trends. Journal of Hazardous Materials 416, 15 August 2021, 125664.

Roberto Verdecchia, Patricia Lago, Christof Ebert and Carol de Vries (2021). Green IT and Green Software. IEEE Software 38(6), November/December 2021, pages 7-15.