Building environmentally sustainable information services: A green is research agenda



Climate change has become a major area of concern over the past few years and consequently many governments, international bodies, businesses, and institutions are taking measures to reduce their carbon footprint. However, to date very little research has taken place on information and sustainable development in general, and on the environmental impact of information services in particular. Based on the data collected from various research papers and reports, this review article shows that information systems and services for the higher education and research sector currently generate massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and it is argued that there is an urgent need for developing a green information service, or green IS in short, that should be based on minimum GHG emissions throughout its lifecycle, from content creation to distribution, access, use, and disposal. Based on an analysis of the current research on green information technology (IT), it is proposed that a green IS should be based on the model of cloud computing. Finally, a research agenda is proposed that will pave the way for building and managing green ISs to support education and research/scholarly activities.


Sustainable development that can be achieved by appropriate integration of economic, environmental, and social development activities has remained a major agenda item for the United Nations. A number of topics and issues related to sustainable development have been identified by the United Nations Division for Sustainable Development (UN DSD), some of which are social and economic while others are related to natural resource management (United Nations, 2009). The environmental dimension of sustainable development is also covered in what is known as Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (United Nations, 1992), which was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 3–14, 1992. This has subsequently given rise to several major international summits and conferences and has resulted in a major policy document, the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, on December 11, 1997, and entered into force on February 16, 2005, setting binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Community for reducing GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions to an average of 5% against the 1990 levels over the 5-year period of 2008–2012 (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2011; for details of the Kyoto Protocol, see United Nations, 1998). Consequently, various governments and international bodies have geared up their activities for combating climate change, and several new measures have been proposed. Like in other fields, tough measures are also being proposed by governments to ensure that the higher education sectors comply with the government policies in reducing their carbon footprint. In March 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the mandatory GHG reporting rule, which would require any US entity emitting more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent to report to a centralized Federal Agency, and thus any educational institution in the US that produces more than 25,000 tons of CO2 will come under this regulation (St. Arnaud, Smarr, Sheehan, & Defanti, 2009). In the UK the government plans to link cutting emissions to funding agreements for higher education and a target has been set to reduce CO2 emissions by 26% by 2020 (over 1990 figures), and as much as 80% by 2050 (United Kingdom Department for Innovation, 2009). According to a new law introduced in the Canadian province of British Columbia, if any public-sector institution, such as a hospital, college or university, school, museum, or municipal government, fails to become carbon-neutral, it must purchase carbon offsets from the Pacific Carbon Trust (PCT) at a price of $25/ton, fixed and regulated by the PCT (St. Arnaud et al., 2009).

In the canonical text on sustainable development called Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987), the importance of information for sustainable development has been directly and indirectly mentioned in various contexts and thus “information technology, information gathering, information databases, information sharing and information analyses have been seen as crucial” (Nolin, 2010). However, as Nolin (2010) observes, the importance of information has been ignored or downplayed in key policy documents on sustainable development, and within mainstream information science (IS) the issue of sustainable information has not been discussed or researched well. Yet the fact that information plays a key role in today's information society and digital economy is now well recognized (see, for example, European Commission, 2010; Hargreaves, 2011; OECD, 2010, 2011), and hence it is extremely important for information researchers and professionals to understand the concept of sustainable information so that they can take the necessary measures and collaborate with other disciplines, especially with information technology (IT) and information systems researchers, in order to be able to develop and implement sustainable information services. Thus, the central question driving the research reported in this review is: How can information services be implemented in sustainable ways, i.e., in ways that minimize GHG emissions? Green IT and green information systems have become major areas of research for the past few years, but green information services designed on the principles of green IT have not been studied so far, and this concept along with a research agenda are proposed as an outcome of this review. The importance and significance of this study for IS may be summarized as follows: (1) for the first time it draws on a large volume of literature and research studies, focusing on different aspects of environmental sustainability in relation to IT, information systems, printed versus digital information resources, and cloud computing technologies, in order to establish the importance of building sustainable information services, and (2) it proposes a research agenda that will lead to a series of research and development activities that are necessary for the development of green IS.

The hypothesis examined in this review is that, in the sectors that are engaged in information-intensive activities like higher education and research, it is possible to reduce GHG emissions by making appropriate use of IT in the creation, management, and use of information. First, based on an analysis of various research reports and publications with special reference to the higher education sector, this review justifies the need for a green IS. Then, based on the analysis of current research on green IT, it is proposed that a green IS should be based on the model of cloud computing. The potential environmental and economic benefits of a green IS model, especially in the context of higher education and research, are also discussed. Finally, the review proposes an agenda that will pave the way for building and managing a green IS to support education and research/scholarly activities.

Relevant research papers were collected from LISA, Scopus, and ISI Web of Knowledge databases which were analyzed along with the recent reports and studies from various representative bodies like IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), European Commission, and JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee in the UK). The generic model of a green IS proposed here is based on the cloud architecture proposed in the US National Institute of Standards and Technology report (Mell & Grance, 2011).

The Climate Change Debate

It is now widely recognized that the global climate is changing for the worse, and it is largely because of the human-produced GHG that cause increases in air and ocean temperature, melting of snow and ice, rising sea levels affecting atmospheric and ocean circulation, changing patterns of rainfall and wind causing adverse effects on human life, flora and fauna, and so on. Different terms are used to denote the factors that are responsible for climate change, the most common ones being the carbon footprint and GHG emissions. There are many definitions of GHG, some of which only talk about the emission of CO2 but a broader definition covers emission of not only CO2 but other harmful gases like nitrous oxide, ozone, hydrocarbon, and chlorofluorocarbons, plus black carbon (Wiedmann & Minx, 2008). However, often GHG emission is measured and expressed in metric tons (1,000 kg) of CO2 equivalent (mTCO2e) (IPCC, 2007).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established jointly by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme in 1988 as the leading advisory body for the assessment of climate change, and it now has 194 countries as members ( The IPCC 2007 report on climate change warns that the “continued GHG emissions at or above current rates would cause further warming and induce many changes in the global climate system during the 21st century that would very likely be larger than those observed during the 20th century” (IPCC, 2007, p. 23). The UN, IPCC, and various other international bodies have urged governments and world leaders to step up their efforts to develop appropriate climate change policies to curb GHG emissions. The US EPA notes that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of GHG will change the planet's climate (United States Department of Environmental Protection, 2010). Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary of Britain, has recently committed the UK to halving carbon emissions by 2025, from 1990 levels (BBC News, 2011). In Europe, the Directorate General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA) was established in February 2010 in order to develop and implement “cost effective international and domestic climate change policies and strategies in order for the EU to meet its targets for 2020 and beyond, especially with regard to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions” (European Commission, 2011a).

These notes of concerns, and examples of some of the many national and international efforts for combating climate change, indicate the gravity of the situation and quite clearly point out the need and urgency for action. Various national governments, international bodies, and other organizations have come up with figures showing the major contributors to GHG emissions in today's world. For example, major contributors to GHG emissions in the US have been noted to be (Bianco, Litz, Gottlieb, & Damassa, 2010):

  • Power plants: 34%

  • Residential and commercial heating: 7%

  • Transportation: 29%

  • Industry: 15%

  • Agriculture, forestry: 7%

  • Others (Landfills, Natural gas, Coal mines, etc.): 8%

Further breakdowns of GHG emissions produced by different types of industries and businesses in different sectors are also available. However, very little research has been done so far to assess the environmental impact of the information industry and the information service sector (Chowdhury, 2010a; Nolin, 2010). Nevertheless, the content industry plays a major role in the national and global economy. For example, Chowdhury and Fraser (2010) note that:

  • The value of the global book market is estimated to rise to $160.7 billion in 2012.

  • The UK publishing industry has a turnover of over $25 billion per annum.

  • The value added value of the copyright industry in Australia is about $100 billion, and so on.

These figures provide a glimpse of the size of the information industry and its contributions to the national and global economy. Research also shows that the printed content industry generates a significant amount of GHG emissions and the modern information services sector that is based on this industry is not environmentally sustainable (Chowdhury, 2010a; Moberg, Borggren, & Finnveden, 2011). Dematerialization, i.e., replacement of printed content with digital information resources and services, may be one way to reduce some of the environmental impacts of information services (Chowdhury, 2010a), but other measures need to be taken into consideration in order to build sustainable information services.

Green Information Service

Although “green information service” is being introduced as a new concept in this review to denote sustainable information services, the term green IS has for some time been used in the IT sector to denote green information systems in the context of green IT. While reviewing the literature on green IT and green IS (information systems), Jenkin, Webster, and McShane (2010) note that almost half of the research papers studied the environmental impact of IT equipment and infrastructure focusing primarily on the design, development, and implementation of hardware and/or software. Furthermore, they categorized research on green information systems as follows:

  • Studies that examine how the software development lifecycle can be modified to reduce the potential negative environmental impacts of systems (Haigh & Griffiths, 2008).

  • Studies that focus on various environmental reporting, measurement, and accounting systems (e.g., Brown, Dillard, & Marshall, 2005; Goodman, 2000; Isenmann, Bey, & Walter, 2007; Moller & Schaltegger, 2005; Rikhardson, 1998; Shaft, Sharfman, & Swahn, 2001).

  • Studies that focus on knowledge management systems for environmental sustainability initiatives (e.g., Jain, George, & Webster, 2008).

  • Studies that focus on the concept of designing for the environment (DfE)—that is, taking the environment into consideration when designing products and services (e.g., Lenox, King, & Ehrenfeld, 2000; Yang, Moore, Wong, Pu, & Chong, 2007).

  • Studies that are more concerned with describing technologies, such as green supercomputers (e.g., Schaffhauser, 2008) and green data centers (e.g., West, 2008).

Clearly, green information systems has been an area of research for quite some time. However, this review discusses green information services (green IS) as opposed to systems, and it is defined below.

A green information service may be defined as a sustainable information system that is designed to manage data and information, and that produces information as an output in order to support specific research, scholarly and/or decision-making activities. Thus, it is different from the green information systems reviewed above, which are systems designed to perform a variety of transactions such as the online operation, monitoring, control, and management of specific equipments and machineries; online sales and purchase transactions; online supply chain management, etc. The focus of green IS, as defined in the present review, is on the user and user/context-specific information services that generate information as the output to meet the specific information needs of a user/community. In the context of higher education and research such a green IS will aim to provide information services to students, scholars, and university management and other interested parties like the government, businesses, etc., in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. More specific examples of the potential services and benefits of a green IS are discussed later in this review.

Carbon Neutrality: The Foundation of a Green IS

By definition, a green IS should be designed to minimize GHG emissions throughout its lifecycle from content creation to distribution, access, use, and disposal. GHG emissions of a product or service can be calculated by using what is known as the lifecycle assessment (LCA); and it is also known as the “cradle-to-grave” approach (ISO-14040, 2006; Finnveden et al., 2009). This method takes into account the energy inputs and emission outputs throughout the production chain from exploration and extraction of raw materials to different stages of processing, manufacturing, storage, transportation, use, and disposal. LCA is accredited by the ISO 14000 series standards that “reflects international consensus on good environmental and business practices that can be applied by organizations all over the world in their specific context” (ISO, 2009).

The UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change (2009) guidelines suggest that carbon neutrality can be achieved by one or more of the following methods:

  1. Reducing emissions by changing the processes of production, distribution, storage, processing, use, and disposal.

  2. Adopting and encouraging “green user behavior.”

  3. Using alternative (environment-friendly) energy sources.

  4. Carbon sequestration, the process of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

  5. Offsetting residual emissions by buying carbon credits.

Ideally, a green IS should try to achieve carbon neutrality by adopting a combination of approaches mentioned in 1–3 above, and after taking all the necessary measures, if there are still some residual emissions, then steps 4 and 5 may be followed to reach the target of carbon neutrality.

In order to develop a green IS, it is necessary to understand the general lifecycle of information systems and services, which will enable us to determine where and how GHG emissions can be reduced. In the rest of this review, coverage will be limited to research relevant to the higher education (HE) and further education (FE) environment. The major reasons for this limitation of scope are simply that: (1) the higher education sector makes substantial use of information, and also generates a huge volume and variety of information that needs to be properly managed, accessed, used, and preserved, and (2) some data related to GHG emissions in this sector are available that can be used to justify the case, and thus build a model and a research agenda for green IS.

Information Services for the HE/FE Sector

Users in universities and colleges require a variety of information ranging from scholarly information stored within the library and various department and/or faculty databases, to operational information, for example, student registration, financial and human resources information, etc., that is stored in various administrative department/unit's databases. Therefore, in order to facilitate further discussion in this review, information required to support academic and research/scholarly activities in HE and FE institutions (HEIs/FEIs) is divided into two broad categories:

  1. Administrative/operational information required for the day-to-day academic administration and management activities including faculty and student administration, marketing, student and staff support, personnel and resource administration, etc.

  2. Scholarly information required for accomplishing academic, scholarly and research activities, as well as information generated in the form of research data and scholarly output—unpublished/institutional reports, theses, dissertation, etc., as well as published output such as books, journal and conference papers, etc.

Administrative information is generated and managed at different levels within the institution, and most of the administrative information systems and services in HEIs and FEIs, especially in the developed countries, have now been automated. Most of these data and information do not have any price tags attached, but they are of immense value for the day-to-day operation and management of activities within the institutions. Some of these data, for example, financial data, students and staff personal information, grade reports, etc., are very sensitive and can be accessed only by authorized users, while other information such as those related to various courses and subjects offered, research activities, staff contact, and other details can be accessed by anyone. Nevertheless, the volume and variety of such administrative information grow very rapidly and therefore require a huge amount of resources and IT support and infrastructure to process, manage, access and use, and preserve this information.

Scholarly information can be divided into various categories, e.g.:

  1. Information generated within the institution: as course/teaching materials, VLE (virtual learning environment) resources, theses and dissertations, project and research reports, and scholarly output (institutional repositories) produced by the staff and students.

  2. Published and mostly scholarly information that is acquired at the institutional level—library, faculty, department, etc.

  3. Research data produced by staff and students in the course of academic and research activities.

The volume and variety of scholarly information from external producers/providers (as mentioned in 2 above) are significantly high compared to the information generated in-house. Scholarly information that is generated in-house by members of staff and students is often stored in open access collections in one or more locations such as within the library, within specific departments/research units, etc. Scholarly information that is generated externally and is acquired from various sources and services can be commercial (i.e., priced or fee-based, e.g., books, journals, databases, etc.) or open access such as free online resources (books and journals), open access digital libraries, web resources, and so on. Research data generated within HEIs/FEIs in the course of a variety of research projects can be enormous, and while some of the data are stored centrally, for example, at the national level, others are stored locally, and often within the servers of the specific research or the project team or department. Often such data are not managed and preserved properly mainly because of the lack of resources and support after completion of the research project concerned.

Scholarly Information and GHG Emissions

To date, very little research has been conducted to assess the environmental impact of information services in general, and scholarly information systems and services in particular (Chowdhury, 2010a). A few studies have been conducted to calculate the carbon footprint of printed books (see, for example, Kozac, 2003; Enroth, 2009; Borggren, Moberg, & Finnveden, 2011) and journals (Lukovitz, 2009; Footprinting Study, 2011). Some of these studies were undertaken mainly to compare the GHG emissions from printed books and digital books or web-based content/teaching materials (see, for example, Ritch, 2009; Enroth, 2009; Moberg et al., 2011), while other studies compared the carbon footprint of books sold through the traditional bookstores and online bookstores (Williams & Tagami, 2003). However, these studies vary quite significantly in terms of estimating the carbon footprint of printed books, for example:

  • The Cleantech report estimates that an equivalent of 7.46 kg of CO2 is generated by each printed book over its lifetime (Ritch, 2009).

  • The Babcock Graduate School of Management case study estimates that 10.2 kg of CO2 is generated by each printed book over its lifetime (, 2008).

  • Kozac's (2003) study estimates that a book produces 6.3 kg of CO2.

  • The Borggren et al. (2011) study estimates 2.1 kg of CO2 per book.

Although all these studies used the LCA method, the differences arise from the various parameters and assumptions used. For example, these studies were undertaken in different countries, viz. US (Kozac, 2003; Ritch, 2009;, 2008) and Scandinavia—Norway and Sweden (Enroth, 2009; Borggren et al., 2011). Consequently, different figures were used for different stages of the LCA from preparation of raw materials to the transportation of materials, production, storage and distribution of books, and use and disposal, etc., and moreover different environmental costs of electricity used for the production system. Nevertheless, the major contributors to GHG emissions in the lifecycle of books were found to be paper production and printing, distribution, and use. Furthermore, user behavior, especially the distance traveled to get books and the mode of travel, was noted to play an important part in GHG emissions.

Studies show that reading newspapers online is more environment-friendly than reading printed newspapers (Moberg, Johansson, & Finnveden, 2007; Moberg, Borggren, Finnveden, & Tyskeng, 2010). Most studies on the comparison of printed books and reading of books on e-book readers noted that using e-book readers becomes more environment-friendly when they are used frequently (Ritch, 2009; Moberg et al., 2011). Quite surprisingly, Enroth's (2009) study noted that the environmental impact of web-based electronic teaching aids can be 10 to 30 times higher (depending on whether laptops or desktops are used for accessing the materials) compared with printed textbooks. There may be several reasons for this surprising result. First, the CO2 emissions calculated for a printed book in this study was significantly lower than the other studies: about 0.6 kg per book as opposed to 2.1 kg per book in the Borggren et al. (2011) study, 6.3 kg in the Kozac (2003) study, 7.46 kg in the Cleantech study (Ritch, 2009), and 10.2 kg noted by the Babcock Graduate School of Management study (, 2008). Furthermore, Enroth (2009) cautioned that the results should be considered in the light of the types of teaching aids used, and their benefits, in comparison to a specific textbook.

None of the studies discussed above considered the environmental costs associated with the storage, handling, management, and use of books through libraries. Indeed, this is an area that needs to be researched because in a typical library a large volume and variety of books are acquired that are produced in different countries with different kinds of paper and manufacturing technology, and power sources, etc. Furthermore, a significant amount of energy is required for the processing, handling, storage, and management of books in libraries. Often library storage of books and other reading materials requires a considerable amount of energy because a constant temperature and humidity condition has to be maintained throughout the year, and through several years for the lifetime of a typical library book. According to the Society of College, National and University Libraries.(SCONUL) statistics, 2,554,985 books and pamphlets were acquired in the year 2008–2009 in 141 (out of 166 in total) HEI/FEIs in the UK (Society of College, National and University Libraries. 2009). Thus, at 10.2 kg per book, this would have produced 0.026 million metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to nearly 20% of annual emissions from a typical power plant in the UK. If the figures for books purchased by the students are included, the GHG emission figures will be significantly higher.

Other printed resources used in scholarly information services like journals produce a significantly higher amount of GHG emissions. A study noted that pulp and paper mill emissions associated with producing the paper used for Time and InStyle magazines accounted for 61% and 77%, respectively, while the second-biggest CO2 emissions were from the disposal of the magazines (10% for Time and 16% for InStyle) (Lukovitz, 2009). A study commissioned by Reed Elsevier noted that the total annual carbon footprint for producing the journal Fuel in 2007 was “just over 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide” (Footprinting Study, 2011). According to SCONUL statistics, a total of 204,442 printed periodical titles were acquired in the year 2008–2009 in 134 (out of 166) HEI/FEIs in the UK (Society of College, National and University Libraries. 2009). In accordance with the findings of the Reed Elsevier study, GHG emissions from the periodical titles acquired in the year in UK HEIs/FEIs would be quite significant. And again, if the energy costs associated with library storage and handling of journals are added to this, the GHG emission figures from printed journals acquired and held in HEI libraries will be much higher.

However, several measures are being taken by the major publishing houses to compensate for the GHG emissions from their business. This is done (1) by improving the production and distribution systems to make them more efficient, and reducing the wastage of energy and other resources, (2) by using recycled and acid-free paper, vegetable-based ink, etc., and, more important, (3) by active forestation programs so that the trees that are cut for manufacture of papers are replaced with new forestation. For example, “Wiley-Blackwell is working with (2011), a non-profit organization which supports projects globally that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the threat of climate change. Through, Wiley-Blackwell has purchased investments in a portfolio of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and reforestation projects” (Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

Nevertheless, the massive GHG emission figures from printed information sources justify the reasons for dematerialization, especially in the field of scholarly information, and calls for replacement of printed content by digital content. However, one may argue that environmental costs will also be associated with digital information services. Again, this is an area that has not been researched well, and most of the studies have compared printed books against the emissions from e-book readers (see, for example, Ritch, 2009; Moberg et al., 2011). A Cleantech study notes that, on average, the CO2 emitted in the lifecycle of an Amazon Kindle e-book reader is fully offset after the first year of use, and “any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacture and distribution of 22.5 books)” (Ritch, 2009). Chowdhury (2010a) estimates that the environmental costs of digital information services will be much less than those based on printed content. Furthermore, through dematerialization there will be a huge amount of savings from energy costs required for storage and handling of printed materials in HE/FE libraries. Although exact emission figures for library storage and handling of printed information resources are not available, and this certainly calls for further research, some financial data associated with the storage and handling costs of print versus digital materials can provide an idea of the potential savings. According to a JISC study (Houghton et al., 2009), library book handling costs for HEI libraries in the UK during 2006–07 would have been around £360 million had they all been print acquisitions and £112 million had they all been e-books. So, through dematerialization of scholarly information resources, HEIs can not only reduce a significant amount of GHG emissions, they can also save a huge amount of money from reduced storage and handling costs. Thus, there is a potential for significant cost savings by moving to a green IS where printed content is replaced by digital content.

User Preferences for Digital Content

Digital information services based on modern IT, web, and mobile technology have brought significant changes in the way people create, access, use, and often share information. Consequently, many researchers have studied the digital information behavior of modern-day users. David Nicholas and his colleagues at UCL have over the years conducted transaction log analysis of different information services to study the digital information behavior of users and they have reported several interesting observations, e.g.:

  • Scholars in different subjects have different information behavior and they interact differently with e-journals (Nicholas, Huntington, & Jamali, 2008).

  • Users do not usually logout from online databases, and hence it is often difficult to accurately calculate the duration of a session and number of pages, viewed, etc. (Huntington, Nicholas, & Jamali, 2008).

  • A high proportion of people view just a few items or pages during visit to a site, and a high proportion of people do not come back to the site (Nicholas, Huntington, Jamali, & Dobrowolski, 2007; Nicholas, Huntington, Jamali, & Tenopir, 2006).

Similar observations have been made by other researchers as well. For example, Kim (2011a) notes that there are differences in the information-seeking behavior of university users from different disciplines. However, Kim (2011b) also notes that users still find it difficult to use university library websites and their different online services despite those services being designed and constantly updated by experts. Reviewing the literature on the usability and evaluation of digital libraries, Chowdhury, Landoni, and Gibb (2006) comment that digital libraries and information services should focus on users, application domain and specific user contexts. Brusilovsky et al. (2010a,b) note that some social navigation techniques—processing traces of past user behavior and using the “collective wisdom”—can help future users by providing digital information relevant to the age, educational needs, and personal interests of university students. Based on a somewhat similar hypothesis, Yan, Zhang, and Tang (2010) propose that studying users' book-loan behavior patterns can help digital libraries provide more proactive services.

However, research shows that the young generation of users, often called the Google generation or the digital natives, have a different user behavior, which is being created to a great extent by the modern electronic gadgets and services including search engines, mobile devices, and social networks (see, for example, Rowlands, Nicholas, Williams, Huntington, & Fieldhouse, 2008). While studying the user behavior of the Europeana digital library, Dobreva, McCulloch, and Birrell (2010) note that digital libraries need to target the digital natives generation, which tends to prefer general-purpose search engines to specialized resources.

A number of studies have focused specifically on the use of e-books or digital books (see, for example, Bailey, 2006; Borchert, Hunter, Macdonald, & Tittel, 2009; Dillon, 2001a,b; Hughes & Buchanan, 2001; Langston, 2003). Some researchers have investigated the spread of usage across titles in e-book collections (see, for example, Dillon, 2001a,b; Christianson, 2005; Christianson & Aucoin, 2005; Nicholas, Huntington, et al., 2008; Nicholas, Rowlands, et al., 2008), and in all these studies the results show a similar pattern, with most usage concentrated in a few high-use titles while for the majority of titles there was little or no use. Nicholas, Rowlands, and Jamali (2010) noted that 45% of the use for one collection was generated by 3–6-year-old books. This shows that the use of digital books is not limited only to new books. Grigson (2009) comments that a better understanding of the patterns of e-book usage requires a richer set of quantitative data than is available from current vendor reports. The JISC National e-book observatory project (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2009) aimed to fill this gap. The project studied online usage of e-books for a period of 13 months—from November 2007 to December 2008—involving 127 HEIs in the UK. The study notes that digital books “enable students and staff to fit work and study flexibly into their busy lifestyles” (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2009, p. 19).

Research also shows the positive attitude of users toward the use of institutional repositories. Asunka, Chae, and Natriello (2011) note a steady increase in the use of the repository for archiving and sharing digital resources. They further note that social networking capabilities provide contexts and thus enhance the usage of institutional repositories. The importance of context in the discovery and use of digital information has been emphasized by other researchers as well (see, for example, Chowdhury, 2010b; Brusilovsky et al., 2010a).

Administrative Information and Use of IT

As discussed earlier in this review, HEIs and FEIs currently make extensive use of IT and networks for managing their administrative information systems and services. While this has significantly improved the tasks of management and access to operational and administrative information in higher education, it has significantly increased the use of computing resources and energy consumption. It is estimated that US institutions of higher education produce ≈121 million metric tons of CO2 in a year, which is equivalent to nearly 2% of total annual GHG emissions in the US, or about a quarter of the entire State of California's annual emissions (Sinha, Schew, Sawant, Kolwaite, & Strode, 2010). It was estimated that in 2008–2009 universities and colleges in the UK alone used nearly 1,470,000 computers, 250,000 printers, and 240,000 servers; the IT-related electricity bills to run this equipment was estimated to be around £116 m; and it was estimated that there would be 500,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions from this electricity use (James & Hopkinson, 2009).

IT can significantly increase the environmental footprint of organizations because IT equipment and networks have short product life spans, their manufacture and disposal result in toxic gases, and they consume increasingly large portions of an organization's electricity (Jenkin et al., 2010). It is estimated that the IT's own sector footprint is currently 2% of global emissions and it will almost double by 2020 (The Climate Group, 2008). So the question remains, will the increasing use of IT in HEIs and FEIs for developing digital information services lead to more environmental pollution or is there a way out?

Carbon Footprint of IT

Indeed, this is a critical issue because on the one hand we can see the benefits of using more IT in managing both the administrative and scholarly information in higher education and research, but on the other hand increased use of IT will require more energy and therefore will create more GHG emissions. Fortunately, research also shows that appropriate use of IT can reduce environmental pollution. The Smart2020 report suggests that “through enabling other sectors to reduce their emissions, the IT industry could reduce global emissions by as much as 15 per cent by 2020—a volume of CO2e five times its own footprint in 2020” (The Climate Group, 2008). It also suggests that replacing physical information products and services with their digital equivalents can help in the reduction of environmental impacts and this can be achieved by using the appropriate IT and online information service models. According to the EU IT work programme (2011–2012) report, “the ICT sector has been identified as a potential major player in the fight against climate change—in particular its role in improving energy efficiency” (European Commission, 2011b, p. 4). Similar observations have been made by other researchers. For example, Forge, Blackman, Bohlin, and Cave (2009) note that IT “occupies a leading role in the fight against climate change, contributing to a sustainable low-carbon economy.” It is estimated that improved and appropriate use of IT can reduce “annual man-made global emissions by 15 per cent by 2020 and deliver energy efficiency savings to global businesses of over EUR 500 billion” (The Climate Group, 2008).

Green IT refers to information technology and system initiatives and programs that address environmental sustainability (Siegler & Gaughan, 2008). Some research in green IT focuses specifically on the environmental impact of IT on businesses (see, for example, Baliga, Hinton, Ayre, & Tucker, 2009; Baliga, Ayre, Hinton, Sorin, & Tucker, 2009; Carballo-Penela & Domenech, 2010; Harmon, Daim, & Raffo, 2010; Harmon, Demirkan, et al., 2010), countries (see, for example, Hertwich & Peters, 2009), cities (Sovacool & Brown, 2010), and households (Jones & Kammen, 2011). Green IT can reduce the environmental impact directly by (1) using improved materials and technology in the manufacturing of IT components, and making IT equipment and infrastructure more energy-efficient; or indirectly (2) by developing more efficient information systems and technology solutions to support business initiatives in reducing their negative environmental impacts. One of the early works on the energy consumption of IT and the internet was that of Gupta and Singh (2003), which noted that a significant amount of energy savings can be achieved by putting network interfaces and other router and switch components to sleep at idle times.

In order to build a green IS, we may take the LCA approach discussed earlier and look at:

  • How the materials used in the manufacture of IT equipment and infrastructure are mined, processed, and transported, and the corresponding GHG emissions;

  • How the various IT equipment and infrastructure components are manufactured, and the corresponding GHG emissions;

  • How the manufactured IT equipment and infrastructure components are transported to consumers and service locations, and the corresponding GHG emissions;

  • The energy required in the usage of IT equipment and the overall infrastructure for providing the information services (during both active and idle times), and the corresponding GHG emissions; and finally

  • The disposal of IT equipment and infrastructure components at the end of their lifetime, and the corresponding GHG emissions.

Research shows that modern-day green IT measures reduce energy consumption and waste of computing resources by making optimum use of hardware, software, and networks by consolidating servers using virtualization software, and reducing waste associated with obsolete equipment, etc. (Jenkin et al., 2010; Watson, Boudreau, & Chen, 2008). Some examples of software-based solutions that are now used in organizations include collaborative group software; remote video and teleconferences; use of information systems to track and monitor environmental variables such as waste, emissions, toxicity, water consumption; and supply chain systems to optimize product routing and transportation with a view to reducing the amount of energy consumed for moving products; etc. (Jenkin et al., 2010; Watson et al., 2008).

The UK JISC recommends that there are many incentives for educational institutions to address green issues in the use of IT. It reiterates that while IT accounts for around 2% of global carbon emissions, it can also play a key role in saving time, energy, and money (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2010). Increasingly, green IT measures also include establishment of remote data centers, use of alternative sources of energy, and natural cooling facilities for the data centers (Greenstarnetwork, 2011). Cloud computing is now being considered as one of the most effective means for achieving the goals of green IT and green IS (Baliga et al., 2011; Green Peace International, 2010; Open Cloud, 2009).

Cloud Computing

To put it simply, cloud computing is an internet-based IT service development, deployment, and delivery model enabling real-time delivery of information products and IT services (Vouk, 2008). There are many definitions and synonyms for cloud computing, such as “on-demand computing,” “software as a service,” “information utilities,” “the internet as a platform,” and others (see, for example, Vaquero, Rodero-Merino, Cáceres, & Lindner, 2009; Hayes, 2008). The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as follows:

Cloud computing is a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction (Mell & Grance, 2011).

Simply speaking, cloud computing may be regarded as an internet utility service that can be used to create, manage, and use information without requiring individual users or institutions to invest in a massive IT infrastructure. In a way, a cloud computing service may be regarded as a typical utility service like electricity that we get at our home, offices, shops, etc., to build several applications to suit our personal and/or organizational needs without having to worry about the potential investment in electricity generation, and the associated equipment and infrastructure that is used to carry electricity from its source to our point of use, and so on. We pay for the amount of electricity consumed. In addition to the shared use of computing and network infrastructure, cloud computing services may provide several ready-made software applications like Google mail or Facebook, etc., and consumers can also build their own applications without having to invest in building the required computing and network infrastructure. The cost of building the massive data centers with hardware and software can be amortized, and therefore the consumer can benefit from a significantly reduced computing and infrastructure cost. The following major benefits of cloud computing have been identified by researchers (Open Cloud, 2009; Mell & Grance, 2011; Baliga et al., 2011):

  1. On-demand unlimited computing services from a service provider that does not require human intervention for securing the service.

  2. Broadband network access to support a large variety of consumer activities and applications on heterogeneous platforms.

  3. Optimization of computing resources by dynamically assigning resources based on demands.

  4. Rapid elasticity to meet unlimited consumer demands round the clock.

  5. A variety of services with provisions for automatic monitoring, charging, and reporting.

In order to understand how a green IS can be developed on the cloud computing model, it is important to understand the different kinds of cloud computing services that can be considered as layers, where each layer builds on services offered by the layer below, and in turn offers services to the layer above (Mell & Grance, 2011; Open Cloud, 2009; Chang, Tsai, Huang, & Huang, 2011):

  1. Software as a Service (SaaS), where the consumer can access applications running on a cloud infrastructure through a thin client interface such as a web browser. Examples are web-based email and social networking services. The consumer in such a model has a minimum responsibility and control, except some basic client-end configuration, while the network, servers, operating systems, storage, and specific applications are controlled by the cloud service provider.

  2. Platform as a Service (PaaS), where the consumer can deploy specific applications created by using specific software and tools that are supported by the cloud service provider. The consumer in this case does not control the cloud infrastructure, i.e., the network, servers, operating system, or storage, but they have control over the specific applications, software technology, and the hosting environment configurations.

  3. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), where the consumer uses the processing, storage, and other fundamental computing resources provided by the cloud service provider; Amazon EC2 is an example. The consumer in such cases does not have control over the infrastructure, but has control over operating systems, storage, specific applications, and some networking components such as firewalls.

How the layered architecture of cloud computing can be used to build a green IS for higher education and research is discussed later in the paper. Cloud services can be deployed in different ways (Mell & Grance, 2011):

  1. as a private cloud, which is solely for an organization—a business, government, an institution—and is managed by the organization itself or a third party.

  2. as a community cloud, which is shared by several organizations and supports a specific community that has shared activities and interests, for example, universities, research institutions, etc.

  3. as a public cloud, which is available to the general public or a large industry group and is owned by an organization selling or providing cloud services, e.g., the web-mail and social networking services.

  4. as a hybrid cloud, which is a composition of two or more clouds—private, community, or public—that are bound together by standardized or proprietary technology.

Depending on the model and deployment, cloud computing provides a consumer—an organization or an individual—with more flexibility to satisfy their computing needs in a number of ways. For example, while storing data or running an application one does not need to own the physical hardware required for storage or processing the information. The storage space and the computing power to run applications can be used on a pay-as-you-go basis (Cervone, 2010; Mell & Grance, 2011), and this results in significant environmental benefits (Anagnostopoulou, Saadeldeen, & Chong, 2010). This also makes planning and management of IT services a lot easier. Furthermore, depending on the model of the cloud service chosen, an organization can also reduce the load of hardware and software on the client or the user end, and if the data processing is done centrally, then the client can afford to use low-end computing equipment or a thin client. Thus, overall there is a significant potential for cost savings because the operational responsibilities are shifted to the cloud provider, who is then responsible for the ongoing maintenance of the hardware as well as network security, control, and performance (Leavitt, 2009; Cervone, 2010). In a typical HEI/FEI, large computing facilities are kept switched on around the clock, although their activities are significantly reduced at certain times of the day and weeks/months, for example, at nights, weekends, and holiday periods. A significant amount of energy savings can also be realized through cloud services by taking advantage of the variable transaction demands that most typical computing applications have, and redistributing unused computing cycles during the slower periods of one application to more demanding applications running at the same time for the same or different clients.

While cloud computing is a new area of research, some believe that it is simply an extension of the client–server model that was introduced in the 1980s (see, for example, Fox, 2009). The model of cloud computing, where data are stored and processed centrally, has long been practiced by OCLC in the library and information services world, for example, through the WorldCat service (Fox, 2009), and DuraCloud of Library of Congress (Chun, 2010). Reed Elsevier is working with hospitals to provide point-in-time information—books, papers, technical manuals, etc.—to medical technicians as and when they need it (Kho, 2009). Of late, some researchers have proposed new models for cloud-based digital library and specific information retrieval services (see, for example, Hai-Yan, Yan-Fang, & Shi-Ping, 2007; Yang & Liu, 2010; Teregowda, Urgaonkar, & Giles, 2010; Jordan, 2011; Mishra, Gorai, Oberoi, & Ghosh, 2010; Wang & Xing, 2011).

Nevertheless, cloud computing is a relatively new technology, and standards for practices, protocol, and management are still emerging; and there are also issues of privacy, security, and other barriers (Jain & Bhardwaj, 2010; Vaquero, Rodero-Merino, & Moran, 2011; Yu, Wang, & Ren, 2010). There are also some challenges for migration of large databases onto the cloud (Thakar & Szalay, 2010), and skepticism about the implications of the cloud computing model, especially where data are hosted internationally, because the application and data are then subject to the laws and policies of the host nation (Cervone, 2010). However, the Cloud Security Alliance (2009) has developed a set of guidelines and recommendations to help organizations in making their decisions for adoption of cloud computing. There are also concerns for data loss in case of accident, inaccessibility, or degradation of performance level due to some unforeseen problems with the cloud service provider which are beyond the remit of the organization(s) subscribing to the cloud service (Leavitt, 2009; Fox, 2009).

Cloud Computing and the Environment

The environmental costs of cloud computing depend on the following factors:

  • server energy consumption, which can be reduced by optimizing the use of computing resources, i.e., using full computing power only when required, and this can be achieved by techniques such as sleep scheduling and virtualization of computing resources (Liu, Zhao, Liu, & He, 2009; Baliga et al., 2011);

  • network energy consumption which can be reduced by optimum utilization of resources, e.g., by very high volume of traffic, which will justify the energy consumption of the network (Baliga et al., 2011; Mell & Grance, 2011); and

  • end-user energy consumption, which can be reduced by doing all the software and processing activities at the cloud data center/service rather than at the user end, and thereby enabling users to use what is known as a “thin client”—a computing facility with minimum processing capabilities (like the “dumb terminal” used at the client end in the pre-PC era for online database searching) (Baliga et al., 2011; Cervone, 2010; Mell & Grance, 2011).

A recent study at Melbourne University observed that:

“The level of utilization achieved by a cloud service is a function of the type of services it provides, the number of users it serves, and the usage patterns of those users. Large-scale public clouds that serve a very large number of users are expected to be able to fully benefit from achieving high levels of utilization and high levels of virtualization, leading to low per-user energy consumption” (Baliga et al., 2011).

Thus, a cloud-based green IS should have a significant amount of traffic in order to make optimum use of the computing and network infrastructure and energy. This justifies the direction for community cloud-based green ISs as proposed by JISC (see below). By performing all the processing—such as searching, filtering, sorting, formatting, etc.—centrally, the service can significantly reduce the computing power and thereby energy consumption at the users' end, which will reduce both economic and environmental costs. Furthermore, better energy-efficiency, and thus less pollution, can be achieved by setting up the cloud data center (for the green IS) in a place where more environment-friendly energy sources (alternative energy sources rather than coal-fired power stations, for example) and cooling facilities are available; and by using a federated cloud computing environment, the overall service can be made more environment-friendly (Andrew, 2010; Greenstarnetwork, 2011; Pawlish & Varde, 2010).

A Green IS Model

From the discussions so far in this paper it is clear that in order to develop sustainable information services for the HE and FE sector, to support both administrative/operations as well as teaching, research, and scholarly activities, we need to develop a cloud-based green IS model. By virtue of being built on the green IT and cloud computing technologies, a green IS will be environmentally sustainable, and the two major contributors will be: (1) dematerialization, i.e., replacement of analog content such as printed information resources that generate more GHG with digital content and services that generate less GHG (Chowdhury, 2010a); and (2) use of green IT and cloud computing facilities for optimizing and sharing computing and network resources in order to reduce economic costs and energy consumption which will result in reduced GHG emissions. A green IS may comprise:

  • structured databases containing research and operational data of various universities, research institutions, etc.;

  • one or more digital libraries, institutional repositories, and digital content services including e-book and e-journal services, online databases and search services, web-based content services like Google Books and Google Scholar, etc.; and/or

  • one or more digital preservation/data curation services.

The specific services and application of the green IS should be based on the principles of:

  • User-centered design and usability metrices such as those proposed in ISO 9241-210 (2010).

  • Shared and optimum use of computing and network resources.

  • Green content creation and management techniques.

  • Device-independent and thin client applications for the academic and research community and other interested stakeholders like the government bodies, businesses, etc.

In the UK, JISC is taking a pioneering role in developing and promoting cloud-based information services for the higher education sector (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011a) and it recently announced that four new services would be developed: (1) to support procurement of administrative systems and services; (2) a shared service to support universities for managing their research activities including processing of funding proposals, etc.; (3) a system for distribution of student certificates and reports to potential employers, etc.; and (4) support for management of electronic resources like e-journal subscriptions, etc. (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011b). Some universities in the US are also taking initiatives in developing cloud-based systems for managing research data and information. For example, the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory are working to develop such a system called Globus Online “to implement data management logic, both Amazon and local storage, campus credentials for authentication, and a set of UChicago and Argonne researchers and their laboratories (both small and large, and from a range of disciplines) to evaluate effectiveness” (Foster, 2011). These new initiatives and proposed services will eventually lead to the development of a federation of clouds—institutional or community clouds as well as discipline-based clouds for providing services to a specific academic and research community to manage information systems and services. Dr. Malcom Read, Executive Secretary of JISC, in a recent networking conference in Europe proposed that a federation of clouds for education and research could be extended across the whole of Europe (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011c). Big IT companies are also joining hands with research institutions and funding bodies to support development and use of cloud information services. For example, Microsoft recently announced a new freely available tool called Daytona, built on an existing cloud computing collaboration between the National Science Foundation and Microsoft, that will make it easier for researchers to harness the power of cloud computing to discover insights in huge quantities of data. Details of the recent US and international activities on green IT and cloud computing are available from the blogs of the renowned green IT consultant St. Arnaud (2011).

Benefits of the Green IS

The cloud-based green IS model proposed here can also reduce economic and environmental costs by adopting appropriate information management techniques. JISC recommends the adoption of the cloud computing model in the higher education and research sector, stating that it can:

  • “1.Reduce environmental and financial costs—where functions are only needed for short periods, for example.
  • 2.Share the load—when a university is working with a partner organisation so that neither organisation needs to develop or maintain a physical infrastructure.
  • 3.Be flexible and pay as you go—researchers may need to use specialized web-based software that cannot be supported by in-house facilities or policies.
  • 4.Access data centres, web applications and services from any location.
  • 5.Make experiments more repeatable—write-ups of science experiments performed in the cloud can contain reference to cloud applications like a virtual machine, making the experiment easier to replicate.” (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011a).

In addition to these, several new applications can be built more easily from a cloud-based green IS which will facilitate better education and research. For example,

  1. Several knowledge mapping applications can be built on the green IS. This will be possible because several databases, including open access and institutional repositories, commercial journal and conference databases, as well as the databases of various funding agencies, etc., can be linked through the green IS architecture, and this can be used to build semantic knowledge maps for specific domains to identify the major areas of research, various leading publications, authors/researchers, funding bodies, etc. This will facilitate further research and will also help in research and academic management and assessment activities.

  2. Various application programs and knowledge analytics similar to, or even better than, those that are currently produced by Microsoft Academic Research, Scopus, etc., can be built to help researchers understand the growth and development of a field of research over a period of time. Other specific applications can be built to support specific management activities, for example, for university admissions or research management.

  3. The green IS will give rise to a new knowledge creation platform where academics and researchers—individuals and groups/communities—will be able to create new knowledge by analysis of existing data and research output, or by running several parallel experiments, etc.

  4. The green IS, by virtue of linking various databases, funding bodies, etc., will facilitate creation of various new measures of use and impact of research knowledge which can be used at the national and institutional level for research assessment exercises.

  5. A dynamic research and teaching/learning environment can be created based on publicly available content and databases that are currently dispersed and require a lot of time and effort to find, access, and extract the required information. It is also anticipated that various knowledge-intensive applications will be built on the green IS to serve various niche markets and academic/research communities.

Research shows that a division between most and least frequently used files and storage of those files on servers of different performance capacities can significantly reduce GHG emissions. In a JISC-funded project called Planet Filestore, a Cardiff University research team has developed an approach to storing data on disks with different energy consumptions depending on the frequency with which the data is accessed, and it is anticipated that its application can save Cardiff University alone “87600 KWh (or approximately 51 tonnes of CO2) per year which, at current prices, would cost around £10,000 per annum” (Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011d). Thus, less frequently used content and data may be moved to less powerful servers of the green IS to save energy consumption.


A green IS of the kind proposed here can produce several economic and environmental benefits. Some of these benefits will derive (1) from the shared use of computing and network resources (as shown in Armburst et al., 2008; Mell & Grance, 2011); (2) from dematerialization, i.e., replacing printed content with digital content (as shown in Chowdhury, 2010a; Houghton et al., 2009); (3) from better file management (as shown in Joint Information Systems Committee, 2011d), etc. Most important, the green IS will promote better education and research by making information easily accessible, and as discussed above, the green IS will facilitate creation of a number of new applications to meet specific user needs in higher education and research. Thus, a green IS will also promote the UN goal of sustainable development in the education and research sector as we are more than halfway through the decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) (Unesco, 2011).

However, in order to develop a green IS for the higher education and research sector further research is needed for:

  1. Generating data to compare the environmental impact of the production, use, storage, and preservation of different types of printed content and their digital counterparts. Different communities and stakeholders ranging from publishers to university administrator, and library and archives management are to be involved in this research in order to generate data on the carbon footprint of every kind of information resource used within the higher education and research community.

  2. Developing applications for linking research data and research output, and better information access facilities. This will involve community and discipline-based research for building information access and management systems to serve the information needs of different communities to support both administrative and scholarly activities in the education and research sector at local, national, and global levels.

  3. Developing protocols, business models, and appropriate legal frameworks for linking academic/research community and private cloud networks to facilitate integration between open access and commercial data and information resources as well as various web-based digital libraries and information services. This should take into account the current business models and legal frameworks within the information and IT industry, and develop flexible frameworks, standards, and protocols suitable for the digital age for on-demand seamless and platform independent access to remote data and content.

  4. Developing various applications at the service (SaaS) level of the green IS to facilitate community- and context-based information creation, access, use, and preservation activities. Multiple layers of services can be built to support specific activities and applications such as (a) information access from heterogeneous sources with in-built mechanisms for user authentication and security; (b) dynamic business models for rights clearance and payment mechanisms, if necessary; (c) dynamic content creation facilities by linking research data for specific community-oriented academic and research activities; (d) content and community-based preservation of administrative and research data as well as research output—commercial content as well as open access content, institutional repositories, and so on.

A cloud-based green IS can be the most appropriate economically and environmentally sustainable means for promoting education and research in the modern digital age.