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ICT for Sustainability, when ICT is also part of the solution

Luis Neves | September 10, 2014

Last week, the second International Conference ICT4S (ICT for Sustainability) was held in Stockholm. I had the great opportunity to be part of a special session focusing on the industry perspective, and to share with the audience how ICT can be part of the solution for a more sustainable future.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human activity has driven annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions higher by nearly 30,000%. The main factor behind this increase is the burning of fossil fuels.  In 1750, CO2 emissions were 11 megatons; by the end of World War II, they had reached 4,200 megatons.  Unprecedented economic prosperity pushed them to nearly 32,000 megatons by 2009.

According to the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, GHG emissions must drop by 40-70% by 2050 to keep the global temperature rise below the 2° C (36° F) cap set in UN climate talks.

The opposite is happening. On average, global emissions rose by 2.2% every year between 2000 and 2010. When Gartner in 2008 reported that the ICT industry represented 2% of the global GHG emissions, equivalent to the Aviation Industry, many were surprised by this figure and focused their attention on the problem side. But what really surprised us at GeSI was that nobody was talking about the enabling role of ICT to help reduce those emissions, or the solution side. Therefore we, at GeSI, decided to run a study to better understand the enabling potential of ICT, and how the ICT sector can contribute to a more sustainable world.

In this regard GeSI issued two landmark reports, the latest one, SMARTer 2020, found out that ICT can enable a 16.5% reduction of global GHG emissions through the implementation of ICT-based solutions in various sectors, allowing not only environmental benefits but also economic savings.

The SMARTer 2020 report identifies six sectors where ICT can be used to abate GHGs:

  • agriculture and land-use;
  • buildings;
  • manufacturing;
  • power;
  • service and consumer;
  • and transportation.

And, within each end-use sector, we've listed technologies, or sub-levers, that can be adopted to drive abatement.

The technologies identified offer up to 9.1 GtCO2 of abatement by 2020, which as above said represent an emission reduction of about 16,5% compared to the business-as-usual scenario for emissions in that year.

Emission reductions come for example from virtualization initiatives such as cloud computing and video conferencing, but also through efficiency gains such as optimization of variable-speed motors in manufacturing and smart livestock management to reduce methane emissions.

Nevertheless, it's important to remember that ICT also contributes to GHG emissions and that these emissions are growing.  As ICT technologies are increasingly adopted around the globe, emissions grow substantially. Despite increases in energy efficiency, direct emissions from ICT will be around 1.3 GT Co2e  by 2020, that is 7 times less the enabling potential of our Industry

Preventing the release of 9.1 GtCO2e is equivalent to reducing emissions from oil combustion by 21.6 million barrels of oil. The monetary saving from that level of energy savings is astonishing: at November 2012 oil prices, saving that much oil would save US$1.9 trillion per year—that's equivalent to the annual economic output of Russia.

But adoption of all these sub-levers won't happen on its own, meaning there's an important role for policymakers to play in driving the uptake of ICT-based GHG abatement technologies. Local and national policies directed at each of the sub-levers, based on a coherent global policy framework, will be critical to ensure that the decisions of individuals and businesses change in such a way as to prioritize the reduction of GHG emissions.

As next steps, GeSI will continue to engage with policymakers around the world to ensure that ICT is high on the agendas when thinking about emission reduction potential.

Depending on interest from the relevant GeSI members we will continue to promote country deep-dives to help drive the ICT agenda, and to have a better understanding of the sectors where ICT can make a relevant impact. This can drive investment in new solutions and support economic growth and job creation.

Finally, GeSI will continue to communicate the findings of the SMARTer 2020 report to showcase how companies are using its proposed solutions and the emissions they have saved thanks to ICT technology.



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