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Forging a path toward environmental sustainability

4 November 2011 - The impact of human activities on the environment – and on climate change in particular – is of growing concern, all the more so in a world of 7 billion people. While information and communication technologies (ICTs) themselves require energy and other resources, they can be an essential tool in helping to ensure future environmental sustainability. ICTs have huge potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that threaten dangerous global warming, as well as an important role in monitoring the impact of climate change and helping communities to adapt. They are the backbone of early warning systems that reduce vulnerability to natural disasters. They can help reduce demands on scarce natural resources and manage those resources more efficiently. And they can enhance environmental surveillance, for example, to monitor deforestation or crop patterns that indicate possible food shortages, helping policymakers devise suitable response strategies and identifying abuses such as illegal logging.

It has been estimated that ICTs could cut GHG emissions by as much as 15%, through:

  • Promoting development of more energy efficient devices, applications and networks such as smart electricity grids, and smart transport and logistics systems.
  • Encouraging environmentally friendly design such as smart buildings.
  • Reducing transport and travel demands though e-commerce, teleconferencing and teleworking.
  • ‘Dematerialization’ to replace physical objects such as DVDs, books and paper documents with virtual ones.

In addition, the ICT industry is working to reduce its own carbon footprint, which currently amounts to about 2-2.5% of global emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, if ICT power consumption continues to grow at 15% a year, it will represent 40% of global electricity use by 2030. By contrast, for every watt of energy saved by a billion users of ICT equipment, a whole power plant is no longer required.

ITU is supporting the drive to green the ICT sector and to mitigate climate change in a variety of ways. One of the key ITU deliverables in this area has been the development of a set of common methodologies for measuring the industry’s environmental impact. This standardized methodology, endorsed by ITU members in September 2011, will allow ICT companies to measure their own carbon footprint and to estimate the reduction in GHG and energy consumption that use of ICTs can bring about in other sectors.

ITU is encouraging its members to introduce new technologies such as next generation networks (NGNs) that can cut emissions by 40%. ITU is conducting and managing studies on the use of ICTs to improve climate monitoring and the definition of new standards to promote more resource-efficient ICTs. A key example of this is adoption by the industry of a universal energy-efficient charger for mobile phones. The one-size-fits-all universal charging solution, which can also be used for data transfer, will be safer, use eco-friendly materials, avoid the need to produce duplicate cables and end the wasteful disposal of millions of redundant chargers, saving an estimated 13.6 million tonnes of CO2 and 82,000 tonnes of redundant chargers every year. ITU is also studying the potential for standardizing batteries for mobile terminals and other ICT devices that could lead to a reduction of the harmful materials used in batteries and an increased lifespan for ICT products.

ICTs are crucially important in keeping watch over the earth’s climate and weather, and in warning of impending natural disasters. Thousands of lives are saved every year through monitoring systems that use data from satellites as well as sensors on land and sea. To ensure that these operations can be undertaken without interference, ITU allocates the necessary frequencies and approves technical standards. It is currently studying the use of submarine cables telecommunications cables on the ocean floor for ocean and climate monitoring and disaster warning systems.

ITU is also raising awareness of the role of ICTs in climate change at the UN Climate Change Conferences, promoting knowledge exchange on the subject at the global level. ITU is a member of the joint UN initiative “Greening the Blue”, aimed at ‘greening’ the operations of the UN system as a whole; adoption of a paper-free working environment and the increased use of remote participation at ITU meetings and events are some of the actions ITU has already taken.

Visit for further information on ITU’s climate change activities.


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