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Surviving, and thriving, with fewer (and shifting) resources

9 September 2011 - In a world of seven billion people, it will be all the more essential to exploit the potential of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to maximize and share the benefits from sustainable use of the earth’s limited resources.

Already ICTs are demonstrating their worth in squeezing more and more from less and less:

  • Food: ICTs can help raise the output and productivity of farming, essential to feed seven billion mouths, and reduce waste. Today, nearly a billion people suffer chronic hunger, while some rich countries throw away almost a third of food available.
    The explosive growth of mobile telephony in the developing world makes it possible for even very poor farmers to access information on market prices for their crops, find customers for their produce and identify the best transport-to-market options, helping them to make better strategic decisions, boost efficiency, and improve earnings that they can invest in seeds, fertilisers and equipment. Climate change is making historical weather patterns unreliable as a guide for farmers, so mobile phones are being used to transmit local weather forecasts (which in turn rely on ICTs) and advise farmers when best to plant, irrigate and harvest. Farmers can also get information on sustainable farming techniques and how to improve yields.
    ‘Smart’ transport, logistics, warehousing and inventory systems help reduce waste by ensuring the right quantities of food are delivered to the right places at the right time. And in the future we may even see ‘intelligent’ fridges alerting consumers through their mobile phones on what they need to buy and what they should be using up before its eat-by date.

  • Water: By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population may be living in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater. The global impact of climate change in terms of rising sea levels, longer droughts and flooding will add to the pressure on freshwater resources from the growing demands of increasing populations.
    ICTs can play a crucial role in water management. Information from remote satellite and terrestrial sensors, coupled with geographical information systems, can map water resources, identify new water sources and monitor water quality. ‘Smart’ metering technologies raise awareness of usage, identify leakages and lead to reduced consumption. Weather forecasting and early warning systems, based on ICTs, enable rain and storm water harvesting, just-in-time irrigation and better flood water management. ‘Smart’ pipes and other technologies improve efficiency of the water distribution network, detecting leakages and allowing just-in-time repairs. ‘Smart’ industrial processing systems minimize water use in factories.

  • Energy: A fifth of the world’s population has no access to electricity at home while rising prosperity in many countries is increasing demand for goods (which require energy for production), energy-using domestic appliances and personalized transport. The challenge is to provide universal access to electricity and supply more consumer goods at the same time as reducing fossil fuel use to curb global warming. This will mean a much bigger role for renewable energy resources and for energy conservation.
    Smart grids, coupled with smart meters in homes and businesses, enable better management of electricity demand, boost network efficiency and make it easy to integrate renewable energy sources. Smart buildings and vehicles minimize energy consumption. Smart transport and logistics systems cut energy use through better management of traffic and freight. E-commerce, teleconferencing and teleworking reduce transport and travel demands (and the need to construct energy-consuming offices and shops). And ‘dematerialization’ can replace physical objects – CDs, DVDs, books, newspapers, maps, paper invoices and documents – with virtual ones.

  • Natural resources: Many of the world’s natural resources, from fish stocks to forests to minerals, are being depleted at or beyond sustainable levels. In addition to ‘dematerialization’ and miniaturisation, ICTs can be used to improve efficiency of industrial processes to minimize resource use. Meanwhile, geographical positioning systems (GPS) linked to information networks enhance environmental surveillance, aiding more efficient use of resources as well as identifying and combating environmental abuses such as illegal logging.

The ITU is working with Member States, industry Members and its strategic partners to promote the use of ICTs for sustainable use of resources. This includes the sustainable production and consumption of ICTs themselves, through ‘green’ technical standards, and the environmentally safe disposal and recycling of discarded hardware and components. For example, the ITU has secured industry agreement on a universal charger for electronic equipment that will drastically cut cable waste. It has produced an e-environment toolkit for countries to assess the potential contribution of ICTs in reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And it is ensuring appropriate allocation of radio frequency spectrum for environmental monitoring systems, including weather forecasting and disaster management. Last but not least, it is working to ensure that people everywhere can be reached by emergency telecommunications to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters, reducing vulnerability of communities and saving lives and livelihoods.


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The 7 Billiion Actions initiative is convened by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund with support from partners from the private and public sector.