Guest Article #47

Information and Communication Technologies as a Tool to Combat Climate Change

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are fundamental to realizing the shift towards a low-carbon economy. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking at the ITU Telecom World event in 2009, said that “ICTs are vital to confronting one of the biggest problems we face as a planet: the threat of climate change.”

Clearly there is a carbon cost to be paid for any ICT implementation. However, with green ICT implementations, the costs can outweigh the benefits. ICTs can enable economy-wide emissions reductions of 15% by 2020 by offering ‘smart' energy solutions and alternative models for the delivery of goods and services.

Many examples exist, the most obvious being the so-called “dematerialization.” Products that exist digitally have a minimal carbon footprint compared to their physical counterparts as they are devoid of packing and transport costs. The Internet tears down the barrier of distance. Remote collaboration technologies allow more people to work from home and take part in conferences without travelling. In the developing world, mobile telephony is transforming the lives of millions. Places that were isolated from all communications are now connected. Farmers can use mobile phones to track market prices and weather forecasts. Satellite monitoring can reduce the use of agricultural vehicles.

For its part, ITU now offers webcasts of many of its events, and last year held a pioneering virtual Symposium with over 500 online participants. In addition, the vast majority of its technical standards-making work is done electronically between experts dotted around the globe. A new ITU standard called the Advanced Multimedia Subsystem (AMS), which will facilitate the next generation of remote working technologies is also in the works.

Intelligent transport systems (ITS) can clear our cities of debilitating pollutants and traffic jams, including through GPS-enabled traffic systems and intelligent ambient lighting. ITS can also be applied to public transport to respond more efficiently to customer needs and provide the means for electric cars to act as distributed energy storage in network downtime.

In this cross-over area of ICTs and transport, ITU hosts an annual workshop to highlight the very latest developments in the field: the Fully Networked Car@Geneva Motor Show.

In the building sector, ICTs can help manage smart buildings that power themselves and then feed energy back into the electricity grid. Smart grids will drive a decentralized system of energy production, which will put consumers in better command of their electricity use and pave the way for dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy usage.

ITU's home networking technology standard g.hn will provide links to smart electricity meters, feeding intelligence into the network. In addition, some of the world's biggest ICT companies have tasked a new ITU group with identifying standards needs for the world's new Smart Grid deployments.

In addition to green ICT services and digital products, much international effort is applied to greening physical ICT products. Last year ITU approved a standard for an energy-efficient universal charger for mobile phones with potential savings of around 13.6 million tones of carbon dioxide, and up to 82,000 of dumped chargers, a year. These efforts, together with the promotion of energy efficient technologies, are key to mitigation. All new ITU standards are now checked for energy efficiency.

The capabilities of ICTs to monitor, measure and exchange huge amounts of information and their sheer ubiquity underlines their fundamental role in improving environmental performance. ITU plays a key role in monitoring climate change, conducting and managing studies on remote-sensing, and providing the necessary radio-frequency spectrum/satellite orbit resources for sensors used in climate monitoring systems.

In terms of adaptation, ITU has produced an E-Environment Toolkit that aims to help countries assess the contribution that ICTs can make to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

ICTs undoubtedly improve people's lives by bringing them the benefits of the information society. However not everyone profits. Many developing countries are still suffering from the so-called “digital divide.” There is a clear link between efforts to bridge the digital divide and efforts to combat climate change. The cost of broadband Internet access in some developing countries is more than 100 times that in typical developed countries.

ICTs can only assist in mitigating and adapting to climate change if technologies are widely available. A mechanism is needed to stimulate investment in smart technologies in developing countries in return for carbon credits. For this, a common approach to measure the positive impact of ICTs and the Internet is needed. This is why ITU is developing a methodology in cooperation with many other organizations, and the major ICT companies.

ITU has succeeded in raising awareness of ICTs as a key part of the climate change solution in Barcelona in 2009, at the UNFCCC COP 15 in Copenhagen, and at the Bonn August Talks in 2010. Despite the downfalls of COP 15, the event has raised the awareness of the problem and the role ICTs can play. ITU is actively participating in the UN process, delivering as one on the challenge of climate change and will continue to take part in the climate change negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of 2010.

In addition, ITU is organizing its Fifth Symposium on ICTs and the Environment and Climate Change in Cairo, Egypt, on 2-3 November 2010.

New collaborative mechanisms are needed between industry sectors that have traditionally been separate communities. ITU, as an impartial, transparent, and inclusive international organization with a membership of 191 governments and over 700 private sector members, can play a major role in coordinating this effort.

Information about ITU's activities on Climate Change & ICTs can be found at: www.itu.int/climate