Climate change, a truly global challenge:
“Climate change is another profound challenge that is at work transforming the face of the world…[it] is a global challenge that the world cannot afford to lose” – Dr Hamadoun Touré, ITU Secretary-General1.
The dimensions and possible effects of climate change are hotly debated topics. There are varying views on its causes and longer term impacts, but most experts agree there are serious societal and economic implications for our planet if the current model of development continues. We will all experience problems, but most at risk will be economies highly dependent on agriculture and fisheries. Many species of animals and plants will suffer as they lose precious habitat to climate change and sea level rise. The ongoing consequences may be more severe still... for all of us.
Environmental issues appear in many different but related guises, from climate change to resource conservation, energy efficiency and toxic waste. Central to the climate change issue is the continuing production of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions as a by-product of industrial and commercial life, including energy production and consumption, manufacturing, raw materials processing, food production, and automobile use. In its fourth report the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that global GHG emissions have risen by 70% since 1970, and the rise in sea levels and temperature is related to this.
ICT must cut its own emissions…
As one of the key sectors of the global economy, the ICT industry itself contributes to GHG emissions. Experts estimate that 2 to 2.5% of emissions, equivalent to 1 Gigatonne of carbon dioxide, are caused by the global ICT industry, mainly through the consumption of electrical power excluding broadcasting and related radiocommunications activity2.
Regardless of the total figure, the industry – with billions of customers – remains a large source of emissions and a big user of energy. Around 40% of the ICT emission figure is believed to be related to PC use, with fixed and mobile telecom networks accounting for 24%. A large data center may have the energy needs of a small to medium-sized city. In fact, data center activity is responsible for a 23% share of the total, a huge concentration of consumption but occurring in relatively few locations3, which may allow for focused energy efficiency programs to be implemented.
How the contribution of the ICT sector to GHG emissions will evolve remains unclear, as two opposing forces are currently taking place. On the one hand, the industry is becoming more aware of the importance of making devices and technologies more energy efficient to limit the emissions produced. As an example of this dynamic, next generation networks (NGNs) can consume a fraction of the power of previous technologies. On the other hand the growing adoption of ICTs will ensure that the GHG emissions of the sector grow at faster rates, as more users become connected and more devices are making use of always-on connectivity.
Last year, ITU correctly predicted that the number of mobile subscriptions would reach five billion globally by the end of 2010. This enormous penetration, coupled with the sophisticated, power hungry applications that advanced mobile technologies now offer may mean an increase in energy consumption at the consumer level if the ICT industry does not implement solutions to use power and spectrum bandwidth as efficiently as possible. Some analysis predicts that ICT energy consumption in Europe alone may grow to 10.5% of all energy consumption by 20184.
But ICTs can facilitate monitoring and controlling emissions…
The ICT sector is, however unique: “it may cause 2.5% of GHG emissions but it can play a major role in controlling the other 97.5%”, emphasizes Dr Touré. For example, advanced broadband networks allow individuals and companies to reduce air travel and switch to video conferencing. Collaborative working approaches will increase further and paper resources can be replaced by the online distribution of documentation. Broadband will allow “atoms” to be substituted by “bits”. For example, streaming a movie online rather than buying a DVD.
ICTs will also allow for much better monitoring and control of systems of all kinds. Wireless technologies and global observation systems play a significant role in monitoring climate change. In addition, sophisticated remote sensing technologies and broadband networks can work with smart grids, manufacturing and process control systems to control and match energy generation and utilization, minimizing wastage and consumption of fossil fuel and emissions of GHG. Intelligent vehicle systems will reduce exhaust emissions and cut journey times and energy expenditures. Across the world, ICT networks can give early warning of climate and oceanographic changes, in real time, to allow governments to adjust and respond to natural disasters.
Climate change and e-sustainability are multi-faceted challenges and call for a wide range of responses. As a unique intergovernmental organization with participation from the private sector, ITU has been a major facilitator of initiatives to speed ICT-related GHG emission reductions, that reach across all its activities.
Specific ITU initiatives include the following:
- 6th ITU symposium on ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change. Held between 7-8 July in Ghana, the symposium concluded with a Call to Action addressing climate change and the forthcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17-CMP7), to be held in Durban, South Africa in November 2011.
- ITU Green ICT application challenge. ITU is holding a global competition to promote the development of innovative applications that showcase the use of ICTs to address environmental sustainability. The winner of the Challenge will be announced on 1 September 2011. The winning entrant will be invited to present his/her Concept Paper at the ITU Green Standards Week in Rome, Italy, on 6 September 2011.
- New ITU reports. Over the past 12 months, ITU has produced new reports showcasing innovative ICT applications that enable a low carbon future. Key reports published include the ITU-GeSI report “Using ICTs to tackle climate change” and the ITU-T Technology Watch reports “ICT as an Enabler for Smart Water Management” and “Using Submarine Communications Networks to Monitor the Climate”.
- New ITU recommendations. Throughout the year, ITU has progressed notably in several green ICT standards that will enable a low carbon future. Key recommendations approved include the recommendation ITU-T L.1400, "Overview and general principles of methodologies for assessing the environmental impact of ICT", and the recommendation ITU-T L.1000, “Universal power adapter and charger solution for mobile terminals and other ICT devices”.
Find out more about ITU’s activities in climate change at www.itu.int/climate or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
1 ITU Secretary-General’s Declaration at the High-Level Segment of ITU Council 2008
2 McKinsey & Company for The Climate Group and the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI): “The impact of ICT on global emissions.” November 2007
3 ITU Symposium on ICTs and Climate Change, Ecuador, 2009: ITU background report
4 European Commission: “Communication on mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy.” March 2009
5 Further information at http://www.itu.int/ITU-T/worksem/climatechange/index.html
6 World Radiocommunication Conference 2007 (WRC-07)