Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

How IT can make the world a greener place

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HSBC: Accelerated Drive to Low Carbon Economy is Better for Global Economies

Nick Robins, head of the Climate Change Centre of Excellence at HSBC, discusses benefits, costs and risks of a transition to a low-carbon economy last September at the Stockholm meeting of the Global Challenges Foundation.

Nick calls this “disruptive change” and describes a “digital networks” wave of disruption giving way to a “climate business” wave of disruption. I would agree, though I think the interesting opportunities lie in the transition from digital networks to climate business.

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HICSS Conference Keynote Speaker: Green IT Innovator Shwetak Patel


The keynote speaker of the annual HICSS conference, happening now, is Shwetak Patel, director of the Ubicomp lab at UW and Green IT innovator. Shwetak is reviewing many of the problems I’ve talked about in this blog, in particular, poor information on energy and water use in the home. One angle on this is “Single sensors,” which use machine learning to back out which appliances are drawing which currents.

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The choice of Shwetak to address the entire conference in this keynote session underscores the importance of the role of IT in enabling and transforming environmental sustainability, energy reductions, and so forth. The conversation that a few of us began years ago finally appears to be gaining mainstream acceptance. Well done to the conference organizers for making this insightful choice.

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Climate Change Knowns and Unknowns – Professional Responsibility of Scholars Who Don’t Study Climate Science

What professional responsibility do scholars who don’t study climate science have to their students and others who look to them for knowledge about climate change and potential solutions? How to respond to such questions in terms of the nature of the problem, its implications, and approaches for mitigating and adapting to the problem?

Science of Climate Change (nature of problem)

Regarding the science of climate change itself, based on their developed scientific expertise 97% of well-published climate scientists agree that “anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century,” according to a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Another peer reviewed study, this time of 3,146 earth scientists finds a similar result: 90% respond “risen” to the question “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? and 82% answer Yes to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

To emphasize, these are the views of truth-seeking scientific experts who study various aspects of climate change and subject their analyses to rigorous peer review and criticism within scientific journals and in research lectures.

Implications of Climate Change (impact of problem)

Regarding the implications of rising mean global temperatures on human life, there’s been widespread research on impacts to food and water supplies, human health, economic growth, conflict and security, disease, etc. For example, a recent study of “Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security” in Science results in a set of precepts, including

  • Climate change impacts on food security will be worst in countries already suffering high levels of hunger and will worsen over time
  • The consequences for global undernutrition and malnutrition of doing nothing in response to climate change are potentially large and will increase over time
  • Food inequalities will increase, from local to global levels, because the degree of climate change and the extent of its effects on people will differ from one part of the world to another, from one community to the next, and between rural and urban areas.

Overall, and according to the latest 2014 IPCC report: “Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).” IPCC goes on to summarize that: “Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and challenging irreversible impacts”

Importantly, some effects of climate change are impacting human life now, including increased coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more frequent and intense heat waves, forest death in the Rocky Mountains, and changing seasons.

Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change (solutions)

Regarding solutions, arguments can be made for a variety of approaches, including moving away from fossil fuels by pricing the CO2 externality, technological ingenuity, dietary changes away from beef and toward local and organic foods, carbon sequestration, adoption of low-carbon energy sources, enacting regulations, etc.


Two Fundamental Tenets of Professional Responsibility

So what is the professional responsibility of non-climate science scholars in the face of the above knowns and unknowns? I propose two basic principles:

P1 Clarity in communicating consensus of climate scholars and what their research says: most of global warming is being caused by increased concentrations of carbon emissions from human activities such as the use of fossil fuels.  

P2 Clarity in communicating the scientific understanding that impacts of climate change are occurring now, and the range and intensity of impacts is likely to increase and be more negative than positive in the future, creating significant risks. 


Below, I provide two example statements from professors who are not climate scientists that illustrate alignment and misalignment with the two principles.


1. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of political science in the environmental studies program at the University of  Colorado.

Roger uses a simple and easy-to-understand “bathtub model” of carbon dioxide buildup on page 9 of his book “The Climate Fix,” clearly fulfilling P1. He goes on to say that “Many, if not most, scientists believe that the impacts [of accumulating carbon dioxide] will be on balance negative and significant,” in line with P2.

These statements align with P1 and P2 and indicate professional responsibility.


2. Jaana Woiceshyn is an associate professor of strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

Jaana has recently written that “there has been no significant global warming in the last century” and “CO2 is not a significant cause of temperature fluctuations”.

These statements contradict P1 and do not indicate professional responsibility.

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Business Education Jam #digitalforgreen

The Business Education Jam is being held online today (9/30) until Thursday (10/2).

Sponsored by Boston University and IBM (Financial Times article on the Jam), the goal is:

To envision the future of business education, we will focus on certain areas of interest to spark a global discussion.”

Ten topic areas (called Forums) have been identified. None explicitly refer to environmental sustainability or corporate social responsibility. There is a forum entitled “Fostering Ethical Leadership“, with questions such as “How can academia work with industry to broaden the understanding of ethical dilemmas in a global context?”

Given that analytics will be performed on all online content (comments, etc.), and given the lack of a forum on the topic  of environmental sustainability, it is possible that the analytics will conclude that environmental sustainability is not important to the future of business education (which is clearly incorrect).

So, anyone interested in corporate social responsibility, environmental sustainability, zero-waste production, supply chain transparency, smart energy, renewable resources, and related, please join the Jam and make your voice heard (thanks to Stephanie Watts at BU for bringing this issue to my attention). 

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Leverage Information Technology Trajectories to Enhance Sustainable Business

In a working paper that will be presented in a few months at the HICSS conference, I describe how leveraging technology trajectories is one of four principles of Digital Fitness. Digital fitness is how I refer to the digital capabilities and mindsets required of all organizational leaders in order to succeed in today’s chaotic digitally enabled business world.

Leveraging technology trajectories is encapsulated by the moving gears in the illustration below. IT continues to get faster, smaller, and cheaper. This leads to increasing and innovative uses to substitute away from older methods or complement existing ones. This ultimately leads to the data avalanche facing most large companies and the use of analytics and other creative software approaches to convert it into value.

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     Source: Melville, N.P. “Digital Fitness: Four Principles for Successful Development of Digital Initiatives,” paper accepted to HICSS-48, January 5-8, 2015.


A good example of leveraging technology trajectories in the environmental sustainability space is provided in a post on SustainableBrands by Paul Bosworth, which summarizes the critical role that data plays in driving sustainability at USPS:

Data, Data, Data

Sustainable business these days requires data, and lots of it. Companies are using sustainability data for a multiplicity of reasons: to inform corporate strategy, comply with regulations, evaluate investments, improve transparency, develop products and processes, manage risk, benchmark themselves against competitors, change organisational culture, and engage with supply chains.

Increasingly, companies that take a well-organised and data-driven approach are more likely to see investments in their sustainability programme pay off. This means using analysis to better inform decision making, leading to methodically prioritised initiatives that get off the ground far more quickly.

Once the data management programme begins to mature and data inputs are integrated that reach across a company’s financial planning databases and other operational information resources, opportunities for cost savings and revenue generation can be routinely identified and acted upon.

Driving Value From Data

My favourite example of an organisation using data to drive sustainable development is the United States Postal Service (USPS). Across 32,000 facilities, their Office of Sustainability designed an employee-led programme to address goals in waste reduction, energy conservation, fleet fuel reduction, consumables spending, recycling, and water use.

To aggregate and display relevant data, USPS developed a Green Initiatives Tracking Tool (GITT). This features dashboards that allow cost efficiencies and performance enhancements to be monitored across the organisation. The GITT system achieves this by providing status updates for core projects, as well as financial information, through direct connection with the accounting system for each facility.

GITT is also designed to be interactive. It includes a start-up list of 41 suggested projects for facilities as well as guidelines and training modules for their completion. Managers can also understand clearly what projects are in place and where via sustainability performance metrics that are triggered upon project implementation. Ready access to GITT information and comparative tables enable comparison between facilities and geographies. Most importantly, USPS can now track progress in real time at a national level and support those facilities that need additional help.

By using data aggregation and analytics, USPS was able to gain visibility into its progress on sustainability and isolate over $52m in savings in 2012 largely due to employee-led initiatives.


Unfortunately, as I argue in the article, too many digital initiatives fail to meet expectations. It’s my hypothesis that the lack of digital fitness is one source of these high rates of failure. If this is true, it would be interesting to refine the concept of digital fitness by studying leaders at companies that seem to excel at the intersection of IT and corporate environmental sustainability, including SAP, IBM, Danone, Intel, Nest, OPower, and Ebay. What might we learn?

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Conference Roundup: Green IS Topics at AMCIS

Several interesting Green IS papers were presented at AMCIS last week in Savannah GA.

Here’s a partial list:

It appears that Green IS scholarship is shifting from generalities to specifics, which I think is a good thing as we move out of the nascent stage and the literature slowly matures. We still need more studies that connect IS investment to environmental and financial value (more on that soon).

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Climate Risk Regulations Vs Enforced Regulations: The IT Elephant in the Room

In 2010 the SEC published “interpretive guidelines” for corporate disclosure of risks related to climate change, summarized in this table by Ceres (p. 8):

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The Interpretive Guidelines were hailed as an important step forward in providing material information to investors regarding climate change risks.

Did the Guidelines impact corporate disclosures in financial statements (10-Ks)?

Ceres analyzed all S&P 500 10-k filings from 2009 to 2013, finding that:

Most S&P 500 climate disclosures in 10-Ks are very brief, provide little discussion of material issues, and do not quantify impacts or risks. Based on this report’s 0-100 scoring scale, electric power companies received an average score of 16.7 for the quality of their SEC reporting—by far the highest industry average. Even within this group there was high variability in the quality of reporting. (Ceres, p. 5 [my emphasis in bold]).

What to make of these results?

Ceres recommends that the SEC: “devote increased attention to climate risk disclosure by issuing additional comment letters in response to inadequate disclosures, and educate registrants about how to comply with the Guidance.” (p. 28).

Regarding firms, Ceres essentially says: do a better job identifying climate risks and opportunities and disclosing these to the SEC. Ceres refers to the need for “systems, processes and controls to gather reliable information” but misses an important opportunity to address an underlying necessary condition to fulfilling SEC guidance:  implementing and managing specialized information systems for capturing, processing, and analyzing information related to energy, carbon emissions and other important environmental sustainability information.

It would be impossible for firms to comply with financial regulations without such systems, and it’s no different with environmental regulations. Imagine global corporations trying to comply with complex accounting and finance regulations using homegrown spreadsheet models developed and managed by one person: it wouldn’t work. The same applies to environmental regulations.

Here’s the bottom line.

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Guidance, regulations, board-level oversight, internal controls, emission reduction targets, management incentives, and reporting requirements are all well and good. But without addressing the IT elephant in the room – grossly inadequate information systems focused on environmental management information – I don’t foresee any significant changes in actions and impacts.


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