Throughout history, technology has been a double-edged sword for environmental impacts. We tend to forget, for example, that just 100 years ago, cars were in many ways saviours from the environmental chaos brought about by the use of millions of horses in our cities. It was only later that cars were seen as having their own environmental consequences.
Likewise with information and communication technology (ICT) and the digital revolution of recent years. These technologies are no longer for geeks and the fringes of society. They are part of the daily life of billions, and increasingly a backbone of our economies.
On the one hand, the use of ICT has a positive environmental impact – think of journeys saved by teleconferencing, and the paper saved by using emails. But on the other, the ICT sector also contributes to climate change. Some estimate ICT products and services are responsible for 8 to 10% of the EU’s electricity consumption and 2.5 to 4% of its carbon emissions. This contribution is growing and may double by 2020. With that in mind, it is time for the ICT sector to start playing an active role in climate change action.
Most evidence points to the manufacturing phase of ICT as the largest environmental footprint of the sector. But there are also significant energy needs in data centres. While definite numbers are hard to calculate, the most accurate information suggests that, by 2020, data centres in Western Europe could consume around 100 billion kilowatt hours each year – that’s around the same as the current total electricity consumption of the Netherlands!
Addressing this huge rise in energy consumption first requires transparency from the sector. We need a consistent way to find out where the emissions in the sector are really coming from, and to measure the environmental footprint across the sector.
Transparency will also help spread the many energy-saving ideas that already exist. From using natural air ventilation in data centres to avoid energy-intensive cooling, to capturing and re-using the heat to warm up nearby office space. Or you could simply extend the life of or recycle devices: not many people realise that one ton of mobile phones yields around 400 grams of gold—80 times more than you could get from a ton of gold ore in the ground.
Once we have a transparent way to measure, we can start in earnest to audit, report, and exchange best practice in the ICT sector. Not to mention including ICT energy efficiency criteria in procurement decisions.
This is why the European Commission has persuaded three leading standards development organisations and a prominent greenhouse gas accounting initiative to pool their measurement efforts. Under our new initiative these organisations will examine the whole sector, the whole lifecycle and the scalability of these methods.
That means measuring everything from the supply of raw materials to their recycling. Measuring not only what it takes to make products like a laptop, but also the impact of services like hosting data in the cloud. It means that in the near future we will be able to measure the ICT environmental footprint of whole cities or countries, including the positive environmental effects that ICT enables.
Several major ICT companies and organisations from Europe, Asia and the US are now trialling such measurement solutions. And from this month onwards, nearly 30 players have joined the European Commission to broaden and speed up the effort. We call on more and more such players to get involved.
Quite aside from the benefits of keeping energy costs down, we must make sure that the smart economy of the future is also sustainable. Information technology is moving to the centre stage of our lives. It’s time it moved to the centre stage of climate action too.
More details: www.ict-footprint.com