A Note on the Definition of
“Sustainability” and the Focus of the Committee
An often-cited definition of “sustainability” comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations (UN): “[S]ustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1 The UN expanded this definition at the 2005 world summit to incorporate three pillars of sustainability: its social, environmental, and economic aspects.2 This report takes a similarly broad view of the term. Although much focus in sustainability has been on mitigating climate change, with efforts aimed at managing the carbon dioxide cycle and increasing sustainable energy sources, the committee recognizes that there are numerous additional sustainability challenges that could be assisted by advances in computing and information technology and computing3 research. The committee’s focus is on addressing medium- and long-term challenges in a way that has significant and ideally, measurable, impact.
1United Nations General Assembly (March 20, 1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future; transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427—Development and International Co-operation: Environment; Our Common Future, Chapter 2: Towards Sustainable Development; Paragraph 1. United Nations General Assembly. Available at http://www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm.
2United Nations General Assembly, 2005 World Summit Outcome, Resolution A/60/1, adopted by the General Assembly on September 15, 2005.
3The term “computing” is used generally in this report and is meant to encompass information and communications technologies (ICTs). Thus “computing” and “ICTs” are used interchangeably throughout the report.
The greening of IT, through efforts such as reducing data-center energy consumption and electronic waste, should be and is an important goal of the computing community and IT industry.2 However, the focus of this report is on what could be termed “greening through IT,” the use of
2The 2010 OECD report “Greener and Smarter: ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change” (in OECD, OECD Information Technology Outlook 2010, OECD Publishing) notes that impacts from ICT life cycles (including not just use but also production and end of life) need to be considered in order to understand complete impacts. A recent McKinsey Quarterly article, “Clouds, Big Data, and Smart Assets: Ten Tech-Enabled Business Trends to Watch,” by Jacques Bughin, Michael Chui, and James Manyika, offered some cause for optimism regarding green IT: “Electricity produced to power the world’s data centers generates greenhouse gases on the scale of countries such as Argentina or the Netherlands, and these emissions could increase fourfold by 2020. McKinsey research has shown, however, that the use of IT in areas such as smart power grids, efficient buildings, and better logistics planning could eliminate five times the carbon emissions that the IT industry produces.” McKinsey Quarterly 5(3):1-14.