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With climate change high on the international agenda, the IT industry is in the spotlight. This time not because of its own carbon footprint, but due to its massive potential to help other sectors reduce their emissions.
In 2009 December, world leaders from across the globe will convene in Copenhagen to thrash out agreements to counteract climate change. One of the key issues up for discussion is the need for global greenhouse gas emissions to begin dropping by 2020 at the latest.
In advance of the Climate Change Conference, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has made an appeal to the IT and communications industries. In his keynote speech at ITU Telecom World 2009, he told attendees, “All of you are poised to make a tremendous difference. Individually you can have an impact in your areas of influence. Collectively you can change the world, and I count on your commitment and your leadership”.
While the IT industry has attracted negative press due to its burgeoning carbon footprint, as Mr Ki-moon‟s speech highlighted, it also has unrivalled potential for helping other industry sectors reduce their emissions.
This was the topic of a major report published in 2008 June by The Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative: SMART 2020 – enabling the low carbon economy in the information age. The authors describe in detail the positive contribution the IT industry stands to make, by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors. They calculate that this factor could result in a 7.8 gigaton reduction in carbon emissions in 2020. This is more than five times greater than the IT sector's predicted carbon emissions for that year of 1.4 gigatons. To put this in perspective, a gigaton is equivalent to 1,000,000,000 metric tons.
Achieving these reductions across all sectors will depend on the implementation of SMART technologies. As well as indicating savvy use of technology to produce environmental benefits, SMART stands for Standardise, Monitor, Account, Rethink, Transform, which provides a framework for action.
The report concludes, "The scale of emission reductions that could be enabled by the smart integration of ICT into new ways of operating, living, working, learning and travelling, makes the sector a key player in the fight against climate change, despite its own growing footprint‟.
SMART 2020 identifies some important opportunities for these savings to be made. It also forecasts the annual reduction in carbon emissions that could be achieved as a result, as shown below:
In addition, the report describes how a further annual saving of 500 megatons could be made across all areas of human activity, through "dematerialisation and substitution‟. This would involve replacing high carbon physical products and activities with low carbon equivalents. For example substituting digital documentation for paperwork and online conferences for meetings that would involve long-distance travel.
If all of these measures were put in place it could result in an overall reduction in carbon emissions of 15%, and an annual saving of around £400 billion! This is a compelling business case, especially in the current financial climate.
As Ban Ki-moon pointed out in his speech, “a comprehensive, fair and effective deal [in Copenhagen] will power growth, helping both the environment and the economy”. Imaginative use of IT is going to be one of the key factors driving the new green economy.
One of the most important roles of IT highlighted by the SMART 2020 report is monitoring energy consumption and emissions, providing the real time data needed to boost energy efficiency.
Page updated: Fri 26 Nov 2021