Paving the road to net-zero digital systems featured image

Paving the road to net-zero digital systems

ITU News

Digital technologies present a double-edged sword amid the global climate crisis.

Viewed one way, the vast digital technology industry can help other sectors optimize their processes and cut greenhouse (GHG) emissions.

“It’s an exciting time for digital tech, with new prospects always emerging from innovation in areas like artificial intelligence, 6G, and the metaverse,” said Seizo Onoe, Standardization Director at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). “This innovation and growth – and their far-reaching impacts on our economies and societies – places the industry in a strong position to provide leadership on sustainability.”

Viewed the other way, wide digital adoption and rising computational demands drive up energy and water consumption, GHG emissions, material usage, e-waste, and demand for critical raw materials.

The entire information and communication technology (ICT) industry today is estimated to account for between 1.5 per cent and 4 per cent of global GHG emissions.

Growing numbers of digital technology companies, striving to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem, have committed to setting science-based targets aligned with a 1.5‑degree limit for global warming. In line with ITU’s calls for “Green Digital Action,” several leading digital technology firms have committed to reducing their primary, secondary, and tertiary emissions, as well as publishing transition plans and publicly reporting data on all GHG emissions scopes and categories.

Recent Green Digital Action webinars highlighted how companies can meet these commitments and help slash emissions across the whole industry.

Adopting science-based targets

A Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) analyst, Donald Wong, kicked off the series by introducing the net-zero path for global tech.

“Reaching a state of net-zero emissions for a company involves achieving a state in which the company continues to create value to society and to shareholders without causing the accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere,” he said.

Leading mobile device manufacturers, network operators and network equipment vendors offered insights on how they were incorporating science-based targets into their planning.

Nokia Corporation, having embraced SBTi guidance and joined the RE100 Initiative, recently accelerated its original strategy, moving its net-zero deadline from 2050 to 2040. Circular design and efficiency gains could save the company 80‑90 per cent in product-embodied emissions.

Anthony D’Arcy, head of stakeholder engagement and enablement for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) at Nokia, underlined the need “to have the context of what is going on in your business” when setting targets. “You don’t set them in isolation.”

ZTE Corporation shaped its long-term planning around operations, digital supply chains, cross-sectoral empowerment, and infrastructure to align with the science-based trajectory. Renewable energy uptake, industrial upgrading, and traceable and transparent life-cycle assessments are key actions for the company to address environmental and climate impact.

“We can empower traditional industries for decarbonization and help them accelerate the digital transformation of enterprises and organizations,” said Xiangwei Jing, a reliability and quality management expert at ZTE.

International standards as key tools

International technical standards are key tools to guide the digital technology industry towards net-zero.

Several companies have relied on the methodology for baseline assessments and net-zero planning outlined in the ITU  standard L.1470 developed by ITU, SBTi, mobile industry association GSMA, and the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).

“We used the available guidance from ITU, SBTi, GSMA, and GeSI to set our own short- and long-term targets,” said Jean-Manuel Canet, Senior Manager for Climate and Biodiversity at Orange Group.

“Orange decided to strongly contribute to the development of sectoral methodologies, because we saw that the problem we are facing is a sectoral problem,” he added.

L.1470 outlines detailed GHG emissions trajectories for the ICT sector compatible with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, covering emissions across all global value chains.

Other ITU standards for the transition include L.1023 for circularity performance scoring; L.1410 for assessing life-cycle environmental impacts of technologies, networks and services; L.1331 for evaluating mobile network energy efficiency; and L.1333 for assessing carbon intensity as part of network energy-efficiency monitoring.

Scope 3 emissions – those from operations owned or controlled by other entities in the value chain – are key to understanding the full impact of the global technology industry.

Future blog posts will cover additional ITU resources and related webinar discussions on scope 3 emissions, transition planning, and transparency practices.

Check out our Green Digital Action webinar recordings.

Header image credit: Adobe Stock/AI generated

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