UN conference shines light on technology 'haves' and 'have nots'

A two-day environmental conference at the UN this week pointed up the differences between developed and less developed nations. But did it also help to bring these two sides closer together?

UNITED NATIONS (BetaNews) - This week at the United Nations -- indisputably one of the world's most visible opinion forums -- BetaNews was present for a conference that shone the spotlight on an intriguing and important dictotomy in the global environment. The two-day event in New York City juxtaposed first-hand accounts of environmental damage to less advantaged nations, raised by UN officials, against the efforts of major computer makers from the industrialized nations to do a better job of preventing ecological harm.

Whether directly or indirectly, representatives of industry-leading OEMs such as IBM and Sun -- tasked by the UN's GAID to be "role models" for the rest of the business community in developed nations -- acknowledged during some sessions that customer data centers housing their equipment are gobbling up increasingly scarce electrical resources.

Tod Arbogast, director of Dell Computer's Sustainable Business unit, saw a larger opportunity to affect ecological improvement through better energy management of the world's huge and growing population of PCs.

Erik Riedel, Ph.D., director of Interfaces and Architecture at Seagate, seemed to agree with Arbogast wholeheartedly. Riedel talked up Seagate's recently initiated efforts to adapt energy-saving technologies such as memory caching and multiple power-saving modes -- originally developed for notebook hard drives -- to desktop drives.

But in bringing together computer executives with UN officials, the two main organizers of the conference -- the UN-GAID and New York-based IT educational society AIT Global -- also appeared to drive home the disparities between the world's proverbial "haves and have nots" in ways that participants could grasp on a quite personal level.

Near the outset of her talk, Lori Duvall, director of Sun's "Eco Responsibility Program," noted that about everybody who works at a corporate data center is interested in electricity to some extent.

Some of Sun's customers aren't getting enough electricity, whereas others think they're paying too much for it. But customers in a third category are actually starting to get more "eco" conscious, Duvall said.

Yet also at the conference, it became crystal clear that if US businesses think that times are tough here, a lot of African villages don't have any electricity whatsoever.

In another session, Zimbabwe's ambassador, Boniface G. Chidyausiku, asked the UN for technology transfer of knowledge of wind and solar energy, to provide the energy needed for extending Internet access across a nation that is now 87% literate.

Some attendees seemed clearly moved. "We know that electricity is a real problem (for you). We know that reliable Internet is a problem. We (all) need to get together on this," responded AIT Global President Mike Lackey.

Chidyausiku also asked the UN for transfer of technology that would enable Zimbabwe to monitor and manage its own CO2 emissions, a factor often implicated in global warming.

The ambassador referred to possible indications of global warming in Zimbabwe that included damage to vegetation, animals, and the fish population, along with a rise in average temperatures of around seven degrees Celsius in recent years. But, he admitted, "more research is needed" to confirm whether CO2 emissions are to blame.

As pointed out by another speaker, Judy Artech-Carr, infrastructure is the world's number two cause of CO2 emissions. But the number three cause is transportation, and the top culprit is livestock.

Zimbabwe might not have much of an infastructure at this point. But it does have cars and trucks. And it certainly has lots of livestock. The same might also be said for a lot of other developing nations throughout the world.

Another speaker, Assistant Secretary Alexander ("Andy") Karsner of the U.S. Dept. of Energy, imputed data centers as "centers of waste." But Karsner stopped short of calling them major causes of CO2 emissions. And that makes sense, because data centers don't really seem to be that, no matter how much of the world's energy they might consume.

Meanwhile, an audience member somewhat stunned the proceedings at the United Nations by unexpectedly volunteering "deforestation" as another driver behind environmental harm to developing countries.

The Pygmies of Africa are becoming almost extinct, chimed in Muriel Glasgow, a former UNICEF worker for the UN. "I have lived among them," she elaborated.

The ex-UNICEF worker, currently Director of Sustainable Relationships at Genie Investments Global in New York City, blamed the tribe's problems on an inability to adapt to a deforested environment -- although she did not say who was responsible for this deforestation.

Another UN-er, Kathleen Abdalla, chief of the Division for Sustainable Developments at the UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), said during a panel discussion that in listening to the other speakers, she'd come to realize that remote sensor technology might be applied to issues such as preventing droughts and managing crop yields in less advantaged nations.

Yet it was Wayne Balta, IBM's VP for corporate environmental affairs and product safety, who'd raised those same possibilities earlier in the day.

So if the aim of this conference was to facilitate communications between citizens of developed and less developed nations about the real causes and effects of environmental problems, that's really exactly what happened, to a certain degree. It seemed like a good beginning, anyhow.

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