Accelerating environmental protection & climate action through Digital with Purpose

Estimates from the United Nations hold that on its current trajectory, the world will be unable to deliver the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. How can we make sure this doesn't happen?

Published on: Nov 1, 2020 | Written by: Luis Neves

In its Digital with Purpose: Delivering a SMARTer2030 report, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) highlights three core pillars  of sustainability as key agenda items that must urgently be addressed:

1. The biosphere is under threat from rising CO2 emissions.

2. Equality is declining.

3. The economy continues to drive the unsustainable consumption of natural resources.

Solving these issues, which cut across sectors and transcend borders, requires innovative and integrated solutions — solutions that digital technologies are well-positioned to provide. Digital with Purpose identifies seven digital technologies (see Fig 1), chosen as broadly representative of the way digital capabilities will evolve in the medium term. Digital with Purpose argues for the utilization of these seven digital technologies due to their proven impact on 103 of the 169 total Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets. Delving into protecting the biosphere, Digital with Purpose finds that digital technologies are particularly important in monitoring and tracking the state of the natural world, and analyzing and optimizing energy usage to reduce climate change. 

Monitoring and tracking
As the planet continues to undergo immense stress in regards to the environment, developing an accurate insight into the full extent of degradation and the most heavily affected areas is critical to identifying key environmental indicators. Monitoring and tracking informs key decision makers, as well as the general public, on the immediate actions that can be taken to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. Additionally, digital technologies can keep people, organizations, and states accountable to ensure that commitments are distributed fairly.

An example is the work of GeSI member Taiwan Mobile, which uses remote detection devices to monitor base station energy consumption, gathering real-time data without manual meterreading, thus reducing emissions from travelling. The use of Smart Meters also allows Taiwan Mobile to accurately anticipate and predict the consumption of energy, providing valuable information for optimization and efficiency.Taiwan Mobile reports that it saves about 25.4 tonnes per year in CO2 emissions and reduces manual meter trips by 8,439.

Analyze, optimize, and predict
Another issue explored in the report is deforestation as the major cause of land  degradation. With forests covering almost 31 percent of the Earth’s surface, deforestation and desertification caused by human activity is a critical issue that must be urgently addressed as both pose a risk to the global terrestrial ecosystem.

Protecting forests is essential as they mitigate climate change-induced environmental conditions and protect watersheds, which account for 75 percent of the world’s freshwater. Additionally, forests reduce the risk of natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and landslides. The combination of land degradation and the increase in global population means land shortages and an increase in demand for limited land and resources. With digital technologies such as cloud and machine learning, the remote detection of illegal logging and other harmful activities is possible through the aggregation and analysis of data to design targeted interventions.

GeSI member Huawei, in partnership with Rainforest Connection, uses hidden repurposed smartphones or “Guardian” devices to monitor sounds within rainforests and collect data in threatened areas. With Huawei’s mobile network, audio data is sent to the Huawei cloud platform and run through a machine learning framework to be analyzed in real-time.
Huawei’s utilization of digital technologies allows not only the detection of species and identification of high-risk areas, but also the location of sounds of illegal logging and initiation of alerts through cloud technology, digital access, and IoT.
Looking at current trajectories, the world is not on the path to meeting the goals of the 2030 Agenda, including global climate targets. While digital technologies can make a significant contribution to accelerating action, these solutions must come with transformative changes across economic, social, and political spheres.

The ICT sector as a climate leader
For GeSI and the ICT sector in general, transformative change means leveraging the digital technologies identified as catalysts to push for climate action. Digital with Purpose identifies the ICT sector as a leader in the effort to tackle climate change with Arabesque finding that “nearly 70 percent of companies in the ICT sector are operating in a way that is consistent with meeting…the Paris Agreement to limit climate change to 1.5oC.” For the wider market, only 52 percent of companies are operating to meet these same goals. In addition, the sector also outperforms the wider market in terms of the proportion of corporates with an approved Science-Based Target (SBT) for greenhouse gas emissions. While in 2019 about 5.5 percent of companies around the world have an approved SBT, for the ICT sector this was 11.5 percent over the same period.

Recognizing the ICT sector as a key player in sustainable development and climate action, analysis from the report concludes that:

1. The ICT sector has a critical role to play in enabling progress in achieving the SDGs. It will contribute an estimated 20 percent of all progress.

2. This impact will support the forecast growth of the industry of around 4 percent per annum up to 2030, contributing an additional €2.3 trillion a year to the global economy, increasing ICT sector employment by over 45 percent to nearly 80 million, and increasing R&D by over 50 percent to €378 billion.

3. The sector is expected to enable economic growth of between 2.5 and 4 times in the broader economy, reaching €10 trillion by 2030.

4. Emissions are expected to grow by 92 megatons of CO2 over the period, but this is less than the growth in Gross value Added, implying a reduction in emissions intensity of over 28 percent.

5. ICT sector emissions need to be considered against the ability of the sector to abate the emissions in the rest of the economy, which is estimated at over seven times the change in emissions from the ICT sector.

6. Public commitments of key players in the ICT sector, together with previous studies, suggest that the emissions footprint could be managed down from this number with the appropriate external environment and interventions.

7. The long-term prosperity of the sector requires both a resolute focus on SDG progress, together with management of the challenges created, specifically in the areas of emission and resource management, but also around other societal issues such as inequality.

While Digital with Purpose demonstrates the strong performance and potential of the ICT sector relative to the wider market, it's important to recognise the need to deepen commitments to reducing emissions as the sector continues to grow. In addition, the ICT sector has the responsibility to address negative externalities that come from the development and deployment of digital technologies such as the misuse of information and e-waste.

Multi-stakeholder organisations and Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) are essential in turning these ambitious goals into tangible action, as well as to keep actors accountable and transparent, ensuring that the Digital with Purpose vision becomes a reality. Recognized as one of the key multi-stakeholder processes in building a planetary digital ecosystem, GeSI is proud to have a global network of members and partners as we build on a global “Purpose” movement towards the achievement of the SDGs following the publication of the Digital with Purpose report.

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