Reimagine, recreate, restore: How we can make digital transformation sustainable
Celebrated worldwide every 5 June, World Environment Day offers a renewed opportunity to rethink our relationship with the natural world. It also encourages us to participate actively in protecting ecosystems under the theme “reimagine, recreate and restore.”
The fast-approaching 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) further underscores the need to redouble global efforts to accelerate sustainable development and combat climate change.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has been facilitating a sustainable digital transformation on various fronts, including the development of inclusive international standards.
Standards can help countries, cities, the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector and other stakeholders to reduce their environmental footprint and achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Towards sustainable digital transformation
Research indicates that ICT solutions can potentially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15 per cent. These innovations present possibilities to reduce emissions across a range of smart services, from energy grids to buildings, work, travel, and agriculture.
For example, the ITU report Frontier technologies to protect the environment and tackle climate change showcased how Dubai implemented an Internet of Things (IoT)-based IPv6 network, which includes 200,000 smart meter devices and a modernized energy grid.
The IoT network can monitor and detect changes in energy use, enable communication in real time between the utility and citizens, and optimize energy supply and demand. This has helped Dubai to reduce electricity and water use, make more efficient use of clean energy and encourage the use of electric vehicles.
The global discourse of digital transformation often neglects the environmental cost of digital technologies, from their manufacture, use through to their end of life and disposal.
According to some reports, the ICT sector currently accounts for roughly 1.4 per cent of overall global emissions and uses about 3.6 per cent of global electricity to operate. Meanwhile, digital transformation continues to advance at a blistering pace and the global pandemic has only further accelerated this process.
To fully realize the potential of digital technologies in driving global sustainability efforts such as achieving the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, we must take decisive actions.
That means not just limiting the emissions of the ICT sector, but also guiding the ICT sector to reach carbon neutrality by adopting effective environmental standards and shifting towards circular economy principles.
Standards can help
Last year, ITU-T Study Group 5 (Environment, climate change and circular economy) delivered the standard ITU L.1470, which provides operators of mobile networks, fixed networks and datacentres with guidance to set science-based targets (SBTs), approved by the science-based target initiative (SBTi), to reduce GHG emissions at a rate that is in line with climate targets set in the 1.5°C scenario of the Paris Agreement.
A recent meeting saw the Study Group achieve first-stage approval ("consent") of two new standards connected to sustainable digital transformation: ITU L.1471, which takes a pragmatic approach to define what “net zero” means in the ICT sector, and ITU L.1050, which provides a methodology for assessing the environmental impacts of different network architectures.
Together, these emerging ITU standards will provide authoritative guidance to put the ICT sector on a decarbonization pathway towards net zero emissions based on circular economy principles.
New standards are also being developed on a methodology for estimating GHG emissions of virtual meetings and best practices to achieve net-zero using ICTs.
The way forward
Looking ahead, ITU will continue to support the ICT sector’s circular economy transition.
For example, the ITU-T Study Group 5 is developing a new standard that will define the requirements of a global digital sustainable product passport for circular economy. The concept of global digital passport has recently generated significant attention, particularly at the European level.
ITU will also be organizing a series of dialogues around the world to promote sustainable digital transformation, in addition to supporting key initiatives that focus on connecting digital technologies with environmental sustainability, such as the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES).
ITU is a member of the UN E-waste Coalition, the Circular Electronics Partnership, the Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative, and a founding member of the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership.
Through its partnership with the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), ITU is also supporting the Digital with Purpose movement to catalyze collective action across the ICT sector to accelerate their efforts in pursuit of a more sustainable strategy to meeting the Paris Agreement and United Nation Sustainability Goals by 2030.
In addition, ITU is working with university students on a capstone research project on digital technology solutions for climate change action.
Through these activities, I am confident that ITU will “walk the talk” of World Environment Day by building momentum to protect the environment and to reduce negative impacts of ICTs on ecosystems worldwide.
Learn more about the work of ITU-T Study Group 5 ‘Environment, Climate Change and Circular Economy’ here.
Learn more about ITU L.1470 in the report Guidance for ICT Companies Setting Science Based Targets
Find more information on ITU environment, climate change, and circular economy activities here.
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