Earlier today, I had the pleasure to speak at the ITU’s Green Standards Week, where we talked about the impact of ICT on the environment.
There are two aspects to this issue. On the one hand, the use of ICT can save carbon in other sectors of the economy—for example, technology meant I could participate in the ITU discussion from Brussels, without having to fly to Rome!
But on the other, the ICT sector itself, like any sector of the economy, has an environmental footprint. And as the sector’s role in the economy becomes ever more important, we can’t neglect its own contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, a contribution which in Europe is expected to double by 2020.
I’d like to understand the balance between these two effects. Ultimately, I want consumers and market players to be able to make greener choices when they use ICT. But, before we can do either of these things, the ICT industry needs to agree on a common framework to measure energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, transparently and robustly.
That framework needs three things. First, it needs to be coherent and consistent; we don’t want to end up with a fragmented jumble of incompatible standards.
Second, any system needs to be international in its reach. Just as climate change is a global issue, ICT is a global sector; content and hardware readily travel across borders.
Third, perhaps most importantly, it needs to be something the industry can use, and will use. And for that, industry needs to be fully engaged in its development.
For the ICT industry, this will be a way to show its leadership, and to demonstrate what ICT can do to support carbon reductions in other sectors. It opens up the potential for a whole new range of services.
So measurement of ICT footprint is just the start. It will be a foundation for analysing environmental benefits of specific, well-identified ICT solutions, and of any negative effects of their large scale deployment. Because the balance needs to be right between what ICT solutions can bring from an environmental point of view, and what energy and materials are required to produce and maintain the technology.
I am convinced that if ICT and other industries work hand-in-hand, they will be able to make the case for implementing such solutions. Because I believe this analysis will demonstrate that buildings, transport, electricity grids, indeed whole cities, can all benefit significantly from advanced technologies.
With that in mind, I’m pleased that the industry is taking the task of measuring its own footprint so seriously. And I’m pleased that the ITU, as a UN agency, is doing such good work.
For our part, in the European Commission, it’s one of the key priorities of our Digital Agenda to monitor progress with this work. In the long term, we need to identify where most energy is used and where efficiencies can be made. That will help the sector stay sustainable, even if energy prices climb in the future. But establishing a common measurement framework is the first step to achieve this.