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  ITU and climate change

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Interview with Malcolm Johnson
director of ITU Telecommunication Standardization Bureau

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KEY FACTS

               The ICT industry is at the forefront of a ‘green revolution’, with new developments in areas such as smart grids, sustainable networks, energy-efficient data centres, teleworking, intelligent cars, smart buildings, dematerialization and energy-efficient workspaces.

               A study conducted by the European Telecommunication Network Operators’ association (ETNO) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), showed that by replacing of 20 per cent of business travel in EU countries by non-travel solutions (such as videoconferencing), it would be possible to avoid some 22 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year[1].

               Telecommuting can translate into dramatic savings in GHG emissions. For every one million EU telecommuters, one million tonnes of CO2 emissions would be saved annually[2]. A similar study in the United States, where commuting distances tend to be longer, found that today’s 3.9 million telecommuters already save 10-14 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent[3].

               ‘Dematerialization’ – where bits replace physical goods – can play an important role in reducing GHGs by reducing or even entirely eliminating the need for manufacturing and transport. Examples are e-mail, online billing, online submission of government forms, downloads to replace music CDs, video DVDs, magazines and books.

               In the field of intelligent transport systems (ITS), parking guidance systems can lead motorists to the most appropriate parking space, reducing engine time; GPS for navigation or vehicle dispatch can reduce journey times; and RFID-based road pricing schemes can encourage greater use of public transport.

               It is estimated that in 2006 the five leading search engines consumed five gigawatts of electricity. That's almost enough to power the entire Las Vegas metropolitan area on the hottest day of the year[4]. Developing equipment that is more efficient and requires less cooling will dramatically cut the energy needed to cool it through refrigeration.

               ITU, in cooperation with other standards bodies, has developed a set of standardized methodologies to assess the environmental impact of ICTs. These methodologies will solidify the ICT industry message that ICTs have the ability to reduce the emissions of other industry sectors; particularly in the high-energy consuming sectors of transportation, building construction, energy generation and waste disposal. The methodologies have received wide industry support, and will clarify the extent to which ICT can aid in climate change mitigation and adaption efforts.

               e-Waste is a growing concern, and the ITU is developing standardized means to manage and recycle retired electronic equipment:

o    ITU’s Universal Charging Solution will deliver an estimated 50% reduction in standby energy consumption, eliminate 82,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and cut GHG emissions by 13.6 million tonnes annually.

o    Rare metals have become essential components of modern electronic equipment. A new ITU standard provides guidelines on responsible recycling procedures for rare-metal ICT components.

o    ITU, UNEP, UNU, StEP and CEDARE launched a global survey on e-waste in November 2011. The survey will chart the ICT industry’s current engagement with this issue, establishing a base of reference for future standardization work on e-waste.

               It is commonly recognized that data centres will have an ever-increasing impact on the environment in the future. The best practices defined in an ITU standard (Recommendation ITU-T L.1300) aim at  reducing the negative impact of data centres on the climate. The document can help owners and managers to build future data centers, or improve existing ones, to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. 

               Next-generation networks (NGN) will dramatically reduce power consumption – by as much as 40 per cent for large network switching centres. ITU’s NGN Global Standards Initiative is the world’s largest-ever collaborative standardization project. NGN components are already beginning to make their way into operators’ networks[5].

               Two recently-consented ITU standards provide frameworks for network virtualization and energy-saving in Future networks. Both key to Future Networks’ focus on sustainability, network virtualization will allow multiple virtual networks to coexist in a single physical network and an energy-saving framework will ensure Future Networks are developed with energy efficiency as part of their fundamental design.

               Developing countries are often hardest hit by the impact of climate change – in the form of extreme weather and natural disasters. ICTs have a critical role to play in climatemonitoring and early warning systems.

               In Africa, the UN has teamed up with mobile phone companies and other partners to install 5,000 new weather stations. These will monitor the impact of climate change, transmitting news immediately to farmers’ mobile phones via text messaging – a critical service for Africans, 70 per cent of whom rely directly on farming to survive[6].

               Using satellite monitoring produces 98 per cent less emissions than ordinary ground-monitoring.

               Precision farming using satellite-based intelligence that measures electromagnetic radiation reflected from farmland can help save water and unnecessary quantities of oil-based fertilizers, while increasing yields by up to 10 per cent[7].

               ITU, in partnership with UNESCO/IOC and WMO, is establishing a Joint Task Force composed of experts from the science, engineering, business and law communities to explore the potential use of submarine communication cables as a network to monitor climatic conditions and provide disaster warnings. Equipping repeaters – instruments amplifying optical signals, placed an average of 100 km apart on submarine cables – with climate-monitoring sensors will produce real-time reports of water temperature, salinity and pressure on the seafloor.

               Information technologies are playing a key role in raising awareness about climate change.

               Better use of power-saving modes for ICT equipment like PCs, mobiles and laptops can reduce emissions. ITU’s broadband standard VDSL-2 incorporates three power modes.

               The next ITU Symposium on ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change will be held in Montreal, Canada, 29-31 May 2012. Remote participation in this event will be available, and ITU strongly encourages this form of participation as it enlarges the event’s audience without enlarging its carbon footprint.



[1] ETNO/WWF: Saving the climate at the speed of light

[2] ETNO/WWF: Saving the climate at the speed of light

[3] The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impact of Telecommuting and e-Commerce

[5] Estimates of the precise energy savings vary. The estimate of 30 per cent comes from the implementation of BT’s 21CN (see “Protecting out changing world”, presentation by Donna Young (BT) at ITU symposium on ICTs and climate change, London, 17-18 June 2008, available at: www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-t/oth/06/0F/T060F0000090007PDFE.pdf. The estimate of 40 per cent comes from Dittberner Associates International (www.dittberner.com/), who have constructed a number of models showing the benefits of NGN, which show an average 40 per cent saving in energy requirements as well as a 40 per cent saving in investment requirements and an 80 per cent saving in space requirements (see for instance presentation at: www.iee.org.hk/iee/files/58.pdf).

[7] In the developing world, the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi has begun cataloguing the radiation signature—and thus agricultural potential—of about 100,000 samples of African soils, to build a database called the Digital Soil Map. When ready, this will provide farmers with free forecasts, developed with regularly updated satellite imagery, across farmland in 42 African countries. See the story ‘Harvest Moon’ in The Economist, November 5, 2009, http://www.economist.com/sciencetechnology/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14793411

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