BT is one of the UK's biggest electricity consumers accounting for 0.5% of all sales. Through an energy efficiency programme, the company has saved about £100 million over the past decade, but efficiency gains are becoming harder to secure (ENDS Report 351, pp 16-17 ).
So far the results have been impressive. BT's CO2 emissions now stand at just over one million tonnes per annum - some 42% lower than in 1996.
However, the spread of power-hungry broadband internet connections could throw a spanner in the works. At the end of 2003, BT had 1.8 million broadband customers - approximately half of the UK total, the remainder being shared between cable companies NTL and Telewest.
At that time, broadband connections accounted for only about 0.7% of the energy used in BT's network. But another 5,000 customers are signing up for BT broadband every day and the company has made it a "strategic priority" to provide five million connections by 2006/07 - which would make broadband customers responsible for over 5% of the energy used in BT's network.
According to a report commissioned by BT from Forum for the Future, this rise in energy use "may affect" the company's intention to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 25% below 1996 levels by 2010 - a target which already assumes a significant increase from current levels.1
Forum for the Future assessed broadband technology against the three pillars of sustainable development. It found that the social and economic impacts are "broadly positive" - particularly the effects on SMEs, productivity, economic growth, work-life balance and health. However, the environmental effects are dominated by a "significant" impact on climate change.
The report found that the "always on" use of broadband - as advocated in marketing promotions - means that the increase in electricity use in homes and businesses is 14-27 times as much as the increase in BT's networks.
These indirect impacts depend on how the internet and broadband are used. The technology could contribute to "dematerialisation", the report says. For example, increased use of teleworking has helped BT to halve its office space since the mid-1990s. And a banking transaction conducted online is more resource-efficient than the same transaction carried out at a branch, although the benefits would not be realised unless high street branches close.
The report recommends that broadband packages are sold with training to raise awareness and encourage more responsible computer use. It also urges BT to establish a take-back scheme for equipment such as modems, recommends more research into indirect impacts and says that BT should install the most efficient broadband technology into its exchanges "as soon as possible".
BT says that the technology currently being deployed uses only a third of the electricity of the original broadband kit.
Chris Tuppen, head of sustainable development and corporate accountability, points out that, despite the increase in broadband connections, BT achieved a 5GWh cut in energy consumption during 2003/04.
BT also aims to cut consumption by a further 10GWh during 2004/05, with energy efficiency measures compensating for the introduction of broadband. The main constraint on BT's ability to achieve its 2010 CO2 target is its ability to buy electricity from low carbon sources.
BT decided to investigate the impacts of broadband after the issue came up in a "CSR health check", periodically undertaken for all parts of the company including R&D. The issue was then discussed at BT's corporate social responsibility advisory panel which recommended that a report be commissioned.
Dr Tuppen thinks that companies tend to change by evolution rather than revolution. The challenge is to be informed about the next stage of that evolution so that sustainability issues can be addressed from an early stage.
The next technologies for BT will include faster broadband and the use of the internet to transmit films and TV, which could require optical fibres to be fitted into homes. BT is also planning a wholesale revamp of its network between 2006 and 2009 to enable telephone, TV and internet to be carried on the same system - which the company expects will use less energy than the present network
Dr Tuppen thinks that broadband's potential to contribute towards home working should also be taken into account in the Government's transport policy. The IT industry could consider the potential for computers to enter power-saving mode if they have been inactive for a time while connected to the internet, he suggested.