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  Intercomms Issue 20
Issue 20 Articles

ITU logoThe Role of ICTs in Enabling a
Low-Carbon Future

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In the 21st century, climate change and environmental sustainability are two of the key challenges facing our global community. Clear scientific evidence, extreme weather events and increased public awareness have elevated climate change to the top of the political agenda, both at the global and national level. Indeed, most countries today have already incorporated climate change into their national development strategies, highlighting the need to tackle the causes behind climate change and to identify and implement measures to adapt to its effects.

One of our most important roles at ITU, the UN specialized agency dedicated to bringing the social and economic benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to all the world’s people, is to ensure that the power of ICTs are best leveraged to address key global issues – including, of course, climate change, and over the past few years we have made considerable progress in this regard.

Greening the ICT sector

While ICTs do themselves contribute greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – currently around 2.5 per cent of global GHGs – they are also directly instrumental in helping reduce the carbon footprint of all other sectors, and particularly those that most contribute to climate change. We therefore need to ensure that we work both to keep the ICT sector as “green” as possible, and to continue to spread the benefits of ICTs across other sectors.

In the first case, this means measuring and monitoring the emissions produced by ICTs themselves, using a standardized methodology. Producing such a methodology, which will define a “level playing field” to help green the ICT sector, has been a recent focus area for ITU, and I am pleased to see that the ICT industry is already committed to this effort, and that the private sector has been actively involved in the development of the ITU methodology. In the near future, it will be possible to compare, on an agreed and transparent basis, among sources of ICT-related emissions across the globe, and to identify the effectiveness of actions undertaken to improve the environmental performance of the ICT sector.

Cutting the emissions from other sectors

Looking to other sectors, it is clear that ICTs are unique in having a net positive environmental impact on other sectors and areas of activity, such as transportation, manufacturing or electricity. To give just one example, advanced broadband networks allow individuals and companies to cut down on travel and use video conferencing instead.

Similarly, the digitalization of content helps to reduce the consumption of material, such as paper, replacing “atoms” with “bits”. For example, streaming or downloading a movie eliminates the need to manufacture a physical copy, reducing the environmental impact of the entertainment sector. According to the G20 ICT Sustainability Index, of the world’s CO2 emissions, 5.8 gigatonnes could be eliminated by 2020 “through the focused use of ICT-based solutions”. Savings such as this will be greatly boosted when the power of new generation broadband networks, with much faster and better connectivity, comes into play.

A significant part of these savings will be caused by the use of “smart grids”, a broad concept that includes embedding ICT devices into electricity networks, providing better information to consumers, enabling them to change their consumption patterns through the availability of real-time data provided by smart meters. A prominent example of this would be making better use of renewable energy sources. In addition, the use of smart grids will reduce electricity lost during transmission and distribution and enable appliances and devices to be networked with the electricity grid, allowing them to enter into automatic stand-by modes when not in use. According to the Smart2020 report, produced by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), the use of smart grids could deliver reductions of GHG emissions of over two gigatonnes.

The transformational power of ICTs can also be applied to intelligent transport systems (ITS), which can clear our cities of debilitating pollutants and traffic jams. In smart, connected cities you will be directed to the nearest available parking space, GPS enabled systems will improve traffic flow, and intelligent ambient lighting will appear only when and where it is needed. ITS can also be applied to public transport, to respond more efficiently to customer needs as well as providing the means for electric cars to provide distributed energy storage during network downtime.

Information systems as the backbone of adaptation strategies

While we search for strategies to mitigate and ultimately eliminate the causes behind climate change we should also look at solutions to assist those countries experiencing its effects, bearing in mind that climate change is already impacting food production, water supply and disease proliferation in several areas of the world. The key challenge of advancing strategies to adapt to these effects is that climate change affects each country differently. Some will experience changes in rainfall patterns, for example, while others will be affected by rises in sea levels and the loss of coastal areas.

In this context, the use of ICTs has been recognized as key infrastructure in supporting adaptation strategies. The use of ICTs supports data collection and information sharing, allowing decision makers to better understand impacts and vulnerabilities, and allowing them to take informed decisions. Through the use of ICTs, teams on the ground can also better coordinate with each other, speeding up actions at the local level and promoting community engagement. We all know the power of social networks to connect with each other – so imagine the benefits these networks could bring if they were used to articulate responses to climate change.

The use of ICTs to help predict and detect natural disasters, as well as delivering information about them, is one of the best examples of the use of information systems in climate change adaptation. Across the world, ICT networks are already being used to provide early warning of climate and oceanographic changes, allowing governments to better respond to natural disasters. This is an area in which ITU is already providing strong support to our Member States. Similar approaches could be adopted to establish early warning systems to warn about the effects that unexpected climate variations can have in sectors such as agriculture or energy production.

The challenges are enormous – but so too are the opportunities available to us. Today, according to ITU data, there are nearly 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions worldwide and more than two billion people are online. Let’s use the connectivity provided by ICTs to engage this network of connected individuals to work as a single community to ensure the livelihood of our planet. By working together we can advance the implementation of new solutions for a better future.

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