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ICT and climate change

The challenge

Swiss Academy of Sciences

Retreat of the Trift Glacier in Switzerland, which shrank by around 200ámetres between 2004 and 2005. The change can be monitored using GPS technology

The changes taking place in Earth’s climate, and the effects they will cause, are high on the agenda of every major international organization — including ITU. At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia, on 3–14 December 2007, ITU highlighted the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) as both a cause of climate change, and as an important element in tackling the challenge.

There are several natural causes of climate change, such as variations in solar radiation, and volcanic activity. However, it is man-made climate change that is of major concern because it appears to be leading to a progressive and accelerating warming of the planet as a result of the release of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon-based emissions.

In early 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a finding that, if left unchecked, the world’s average temperature could rise by as much as 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, causing serious harm to economies, societies and ecosystems worldwide. “Climate Change 2007”, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, says that global greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 70 per cent since 1970. It explains that an increasing rate of warming has taken place over the last quarter-century, and underlines that 11 of the years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the warmest on record. The report adds that confirmation of global warming comes from “warming of the oceans, rising sea levels, glaciers melting, sea ice retreating in the Arctic and diminished snow cover in the northern hemisphere”.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in October 2007 jointly to IPCC and to former United States Vice President Al Gore. The award recognizes that climate change represents a threat to humankind, and can lead to a breakdown of peace because of the increased competition for the Earth’s resources.

The Bali road map

The international community met in Bali to address this growing problem, with around 11 000 participants attending the conference. After difficult and protracted negotiations, on 15 December 2007, an agreement was reached by 187 countries to launch negotiations towards a strengthened international climate change deal. The decision includes an agenda for key issues to be negotiated up to 2009, which will ensure that the new agreement can enter into force by 2013, following the expiry of the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol.

The key issues on the agenda are action and financing for adapting to, and mitigating, the negative consequences of climate change; ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ways to widely deploy climate-friendly technologies. In most of these areas, and especially the last, ITU has an important role to play.

“This is a real breakthrough, a real opportunity for the international community to successfully fight climate change,” said Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, after agreement was reached at Bali. “Parties have recognized the urgency of action on climate change and have now provided the political response to what scientists have been telling us is needed,” he added. Indonesian Environment Minister and President of the conference, Rachmat Witoelar said “we now have a Bali road map, we have an agenda and we have a deadline. But we also have a huge task ahead of us and time to reach agreement is extremely short, so we need to move quickly.”

Promoting ICT for climate change

During his visit to ITU in July 2007, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of ITU’s work in supporting ICT as the basis for activities of the international community and its global efforts. Mr Ban, who has made action on climate change one of the cornerstones of his mandate, described ITU as “one of the very important stakeholders in the area of climate change”. He underlined that with “ITU’s efforts to connect the world, improve ICT and bridge the digital divide, it will contribute significantly to this long-term agenda, which will have serious implications for the future of humankind.”

As part of a unified effort of the United Nations system, ITU can contribute in its areas of expertise to support Member States and to foster partnerships with the private sector to develop more energy-efficient technologies.

Energy consumed, and energy saved

ICT equipment uses energy, and its worldwide proliferation is consuming more. In addition, “always-on” services use more electricity than before. High-tech lifestyles create increasing energy demands that contribute to raising carbon emissions.

But at the same time, ICT is a strong force in combating climate change. New technologies are likely to usher in a new generation of energy-efficient products, notably in next-generation networks (NGN). Also, the increasing availability and sophistication of communications reduces people’s need to travel, and makes distribution of goods more efficient. Both save fuel.

The power demands of ICT

The ICT sector contributes around 2.5 per cent of annual greenhouse gases, a much smaller amount than its share of global gross domestic product (GDP). Its major contribution comes from the proliferation of user devices, all of which need power and radiate heat. For instance, in the decade between 1996 and 2006, the worldwide number of mobile phones rose from some 145 million to 2.7 billion. Over the same period, the estimated number of Internet users grew from 50 million to 1.1 billion. In 1996, virtually all residential Internet users were using dial-up connections, whereas by 2006 about 280 million people had “always-on” broadband connections, further increasing power demand.

In addition, each individual user might own many more devices. Twenty years ago, a single television might have provided entertainment for a household; now, a typical family in a developed country might own several television sets, as well as a video recorder, a DVD player, one or more set-top box decoders, game consoles and computers — many of which are routinely left on standby overnight. As these ICT devices acquire more processing capabilities, their requirements for energy and for cooling also rise. For instance, third-generation (3G) mobile phones operate at higher frequencies and need more power than earlier ones.

ICT use will keep on growing, and so it is important that the industry takes steps now to curb, and ultimately reduce, its carbon emissions.

Standardization cuts consumption

ITU is already very active in standardization work and other studies that are relevant to climate change, in particular in the areas of energy efficiency, reduced power consumption, mitigation of the effects of climate change and technologies for reducing carbon emissions. In ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T), work is being carried out on reducing the power requirements of telecommunication equipment, including terminal devices and networking equipment, which will help to reduce the production of greenhouse gases.

In December 2007, the Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG) strongly backed the future hosting by ITU of an international symposium to systematically review all ITU–T Recommendations in the light of climate change. A checklist will be drawn up to ensure that climate change mitigation is taken into account at an early stage of standards development.

Among the technologies under the standardization spotlight are radio-frequency identification (RFID) and electronic sensors, which can be combined to form ubiquitous sensor networks. These can help reduce consumption of fossil fuels by, for example, switching on lights only when necessary, or by automatically adjusting heating requirements in buildings. RFID tags can also be used to track goods, thus improving transport efficiency and stock control. This cuts wastage in fuel and manufacturing. ITU–T has established a “Joint Coordination Activity on Network Aspects of Identification Systems (including RFID)” to coordinate work in this area.

Next-generation networks can save energy

ITU–T is also developing standards for next-generation networks that should bring about a 40-per-cent saving in energy consumption compared with today’s telecommunication networks. For example, the recent standard VDSL2 (ITU–T Recommendation G.993.2) specifies three power modes (full, low, and standby), whereas VDSL has only a single, full power mode.

There are several other advantages to NGN technology, which creates a single network based on the Internet protocol (IP) that is capable of carrying many services simultaneously. Significantly fewer switching centres are required. For instance, BT’s “21st Century Network” will require only between 100 and 120 metropolitan nodes for NGN, compared to its current 3000. In addition, NGN switching locations can tolerate a wider range of temperatures: 50 degrees Celsius (between –5 and 45░C), up from the previous range of 35 degrees (between 5 and 40░C). As a result, the switching sites can be cooled by fresh air in most countries, rather than requiring powered air conditioning.

Reducing travel

From the telegraph onwards, every use of telecommunications could be considered as replacing the need for a physical journey. This is also an added benefit of such socially important services as telemedicine and e-education.

The work of ITU–T’s Study Group 16, on multimedia, is of particular importance in this area, such as with the “H” series of ITU–T Recommendations on audiovisual and multimedia systems, including videoconferencing, or “telepresence” (see article telepresence). ITU is also active in the field of intelligent transport systems, which can help to curb carbon emissions, for instance by reducing congestion and improving fuel efficiency in vehicles.

The need for workers to commute can also be reduced through the flexible working patterns that are facilitated by ICT. A study by the European Telecommunication Network Operators’ association (ETNO) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says that one million tonnes of CO2 emissions would be saved every year for each million telecommuters in the European Union. A similar study in the United States, where commuting distances tend to be longer, found that today’s 3.9 million telecommuters save the equivalent of between 10 and 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the members of ETNO have been taking action themselves. They signed an environmental charter in 1996 on sustainability, and between 2001 and 2003, twenty-five member companies succeeded in reducing their overall carbon emissions by 7 per cent and their carbon intensity (per unit of turnover) by 14 per cent.

Monitoring the climate

During the past several decades, sciences related to climate change have benefited greatly from the parallel development of ICT, used in gathering and analysing data.

The typical locations for climate research — such as the polar ice caps, glaciers, volcanoes, the ocean bed or the upper layers of the atmosphere — are inhospitable, making it essential to use remote monitoring and data collection using ICT-equipped sensors, known as telemetry (see article on remote sensing in ITU News of December 2007).

Also extremely useful has been the development of aerial photography, satellite imagery, grid technology and in particular the use of global positioning by satellite (GPS) for tracking slow, long-term movement, for instance of glaciers or ice floes (see photographs on the left). In research over many years, the World Glacier Monitoring Service uses a multi-level approach to document changes in glaciers, integrating satellite remote sensing and GPS data with aerial photography, in-situ measurements and computer modelling of glacial mass.

In addition to monitoring the effects of climate change, ICT have also proved invaluable in computer modelling of the Earth’s atmosphere. Meteorological services are among the most demanding users of the world’s fastest supercomputers, and produce progressively more sophisticated models of the climate. For instance, the Hadley Centre for Climate Change in the United Kingdom runs a variety of climate models on a suite of supercomputers which have processing power equivalent to 1000 times that of a top-of-the-range desktop computer. The climate models are linked via one of 15 regional and three global telecommunication hubs to the World Weather Watch Global Climate Observing System (GCOS), operated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

Systems such as these (see Figure 1) are vital in not only monitoring climate change, but also in predicting severe weather and natural disasters (see articles in the December 2007 issue of ITU News). ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) in particular has a pivotal role in helping these services to be maintained, through, for example, coordination of the orbital and radio-frequency resources for Earth-observation satellites.

Figure 1 — WMO Global Climate Observing System

Note — NMS stands for national meteorological service
Source: World Meteorological Organization

Environmental management and sustainable development

In ITU’s Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU–D), work includes high-level policy review and guidelines to help developing countries take full advantage of ICT applications for environmental management and sustainable development.

The impact of global warming on the world’s climate to date is relatively small compared with what can be expected in the future, even if the increase in greenhouse gas emissions is stabilized. IPCC, in its Fourth Assessment Report, predicts a rise in average temperatures of 1.4–5.8░C and a 3-per-cent reduction in global GDP by 2030. However, the results are likely to be highly uneven in their distribution, with low-lying coastal areas (such as small island developing States, the Bangladesh delta, and the Netherlands) at risk because of rising sea levels; sub-Saharan Africa at risk due to desertification; a growing number of environmental refugees, and increased pressure on sources of fresh water and on vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs, tundra and coastal wetlands.

ICT can play a role in environmental protection, waste management and in environmentally-friendly supply chain management. These applications fall under Programme 3 of the Doha Action Plan of ITU–D (notably Resolution 52) adopted by the World Telecommunication Development Conference in March 2006.

Dealing with the likely effects of climate change also includes using ICT in the prediction of natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, and hurricanes, and in mitigating the damage they cause. This was the subject of ITU’s “Global Forum on the Effective Use of Telecommunications/ICT for disaster management,” held in Geneva on 10–12 December 2007 (see article on Forum on disaster response).

Hal Pierce, SSAI-NASA
Satellite imagery shows rain and floods on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia
ITU symposium

ITU will hold an international symposium in Kyoto, Japan, in April 2008, on the topic of ICT and climate change. As well as raising awareness, it will assist in developing an ITU strategy in this field and in identifying new areas for standardization work.

Going forward

The key to combating global warming is to stabilize, and eventually reduce, the emission of greenhouse gases. International success has already been achieved with a reduction in ozone depleting substances (such as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC) to 20 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2004, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol. However, emissions of carbon dioxide have grown since 1970, despite the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set targets for a reduction by 5 per cent of 1990 levels by 2008–2012.

It is clear that any mitigation strategy must have multiple elements and ICT can help with this. Its contribution can come either directly, by reducing the sector’s own energy requirements; indirectly, through using ICT to promote sustainable consumption and development, for example, or to reduce travel; and in a systemic way, by providing the technology to implement and monitor carbon reductions in other sectors of the economy.

ITU maintains an active commitment to promoting the use of ICT as a positive force to reduce greenhouse emissions and to mitigate the effects of climate change.



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