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Whitehall has set out its plan for slashing the carbon footprint of its computer systems, and will send someone round to turn off all its PCs as early as this evening.

A report released today, under the hideous title Greening Government IT, says that the UK gov’s computer systems pump out 460,000 tonnes of carbon a year, a fifth of all government emissions.

The Cabinet Office has set out an 18-step program which government departments must follow to reduce this cloud of carbon, first by making government ICT energy consumption carbon neutral by 2012, and by making ICT carbon neutral over the course of its life cycle.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson claimed the UK is the first government in the world to adopt such a comprehensive approach.

As with any green vision, the government is first clutching at low-hanging fruit. Hence the immediate focus on turning off desktops outside of working hours, which the government reckons could save up to 117,550 tonnes of CO2 per year, so almost a quarter of that 460,000 goes up in a puff of soot.

A good start, but the real stretch comes after that.

Next up on the list is reusing computer equipment, with the gov noting most of the energy used in the lifetime of a PC comes during manufacture. So, “extending its use or re-using it elsewhere will save both energy and money.”

Well, up to a point. The government will insist on commissioning shiny new IT projects, which almost by definition require new kit – no consultant worth his salt is going to waste time writing software for old Pentium machines now is he?

And of course extending the lifespan of the machine might mean spending more money upfront for higher-spec kit, but that will again push up start-up costs, which may be a problem for a government trying to live down previous IT overspends and get by in its current straitened circumstances.

The government will also conduct an audit of its servers and data centres to make sure they’re running as efficiently as possible. Again admirable, but we suspect the lure of massive opportunities to mine data in the likes of the proposed ID database means that there will be compromises here somewhere down the line.

That’s not to say there aren’t other slam-dunks in the government’s to-do list. Reducing the number of printers and making sure they’re all duplex capable sounds straightforward, as does removing screen savers and using power saving modes. Speccing lower power CPUs and efficient power supply units will all seem like familiar ploys to corporate CIOs slogging through the same greenwashing process.

In fact, it sounds like the government plans to do everything the average CIO would look to do should he decide the company needs a greenover and / or the energy bills are getting too high.

And the government will no doubt face all the same problems that the average CIO will face in sticking to the plan – from users who insist on downloading their own screen savers, to bosses who insist that while everyone else can get by with a thin client, they still need a super high-specced power-sucker PC.

So all in all the government has as much chance as any big company of meeting its targets in reducing carbon. Now, what chance is that? ®

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