ICT Industry Combats Climate Change

With usage of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) networks mushrooming, incremental gains in energy efficiency will have little impact on the industry’s overall carbon footprint. However, rethinking the fundamentals of how networks are designed, built and used can spur dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across broad sectors of human activity, including the most energy-intensive industries.

Although the recent Copenhagen climate talks yielded no binding, concrete agreement, the meeting stepped up the world’s focus on the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Copenhagen did provide an opportunity to review the broad range of programs and projects undertaken by companies to combat climate change outside of any firm political leadership on the issue. Companies in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector, like their counterparts in the energy, transportation and other industries, have launched numerous initiatives to reduce energy consumption and, in so doing, achieve more sustainable development.

ICT consumes relatively little energy, but usage is exploding

Compared to other sectors, the ICT industry is responsible for a relatively small portion of global greenhouse gas emissions – about 2-to-2.5 % according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)1. That includes emissions by ICT companies directly as well as energy consumption by ICT equipment. Fixed-line telecommunications account for about 15% of the total, while mobile telecommunications contribute an additional 9% and LAN and office telecommunications about 7%.

Figure 1

However, ICT usage is expected to expand rapidly over the coming decade, especially in developing countries. If nothing is done, the ICT contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is projected to nearly double – to about 4% – by 2020.

ICT companies are taking steps both to reduce their own energy consumption and to provide more energy-efficient equipment. Thanks to new techniques and technologies, ICT equipment energy reductions are currently running at 10-to-20% annually. For example, the amplifiers and base stations used in mobile networks are now designed to consume less power. Mobile networks are making greater use of renewable solar and wind energy sources. Fiber optic cables are cutting energy consumption in fixed networks. Energy-efficient cooling systems are being widely introduced in ICT equipment.

Over the next decade billions more people will upload and share video, images and information over the Internet and other communications networks. Analyst IDC suggests that within five years there will be some 15 billion devices connected to networks. According to most studies, in spite of increasing ICT network usage, the current industry efforts to reduce power consumption should enable the ICT sector to maintain its current greenhouse gas profile over the next decade. Though, with ever increasing bandwidth and applications this becomes an even greater challenge. What is really needed is a dramatic reduction in energy consumption.

New Paradigm

Though the steps being taken are commendable, the projected result pales in comparison to the potential benefits of a more ambitious, far-reaching approach. Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

Multiplier Effect

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale.

For example, it is estimated that the generation and distribution of electricity accounts for about one quarter of total worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. More than 80% of electricity is generated by burning carbon-based fuels . Using ICT capabilities to more efficiently generate and distribute electricity, through such techniques as smart electricity grids and smart metering, would impact billions of commercial and residential subscribers worldwide, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Transport, the second-leading greenhouse gas emitting sector after energy, likewise stands to reap benefits from more energy efficient communications technology. For one, ICT can eliminate the need for much travel through advanced video conferencing and web-based seminars. ICT systems and solutions can help reduce transport CO2 emissions through so-called intelligent transport systems, in applications such as traffic management and parking optimization.

Buildings represent another area where ICT advances can dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. ‘Smart building’ technologies that make building design, construction and operation more energy efficient, depend on ICT systems. These include building management systems that run heating and cooling systems according to each occupant’s needs, or software systems that automatically turn off PCs and monitors when users are absent.

Sustainability Gains

It is impossible to calculate precisely the impact on global energy consumption of extremely low-power ICT networks. It is clear, however, that the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would be enormous. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) research estimates an increase of 72% in direct ICT energy usage from 0.83 GtCO2e in 2007 to 1.43 GtCO2e in 2020, if we remain on a business as usual trajectory. However, this would be accompanied by a 15% cut in overall CO2 emissions (7.8 GtCO2e or five times its own impact) thanks to ICT-enabled systems and solutions . The impact of ICT networks that use 1,000 times less direct energy themselves would be substantially greater than the 15% GeSI projection.

As an essential element in sustainable development, the struggle against climate change depends on a sharp reduction in usage of carbon-based fuels. While dramatically more efficient ICT networks do not represent a panacea, they do hold the potential to enable substantial, sustainable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across broad sectors of human activity on a global scale.

1. ITU and Climate Change
2. World Economic Forum - ICT for Economic Growth: A Dynamic Ecosystem Driving The Global Recovery
3. International Energy Agency - http://interenerstat.org/Textbase/nppdf/free/2009/key_stats_2009.pdf


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