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Sizing up the environmental cost of digital technologies

Doreen Bogdan-Martin. Source: ITU.

Digital technologies are helping to ensure we’re better equipped to tackle climate change. At the same time, these same technologies are leaving behind their own ecological footprint and posing an alarming threat to the environment. 

This is one of the challenges that will be discussed during the second session of the University of Geneva Let's Talk Digital lecture series. Invited as a guest speaker, director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau, Doreen Bogdan-Martin will introduce the conference on digital and sustainability. To understand the work initiated by the Bureau to tackle climate change and what lies ahead, Bogdan-Martin helps us navigate through a complex but necessary debate.

What are the main challenges today in terms of digital technologies from your point of view?

Digital technologies are critical to accelerating our achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) facilitate access to information and knowledge, simplify the delivery of essential services, and enable social and economic participation. Although ICTs are recognized as an enabler for development, many people around the world do not benefit enough from opportunities offered by digital technologies.

Digital services evolve, and innovation offers opportunity. From smart cars to smart cities, we live in a world where products, services, and even whole industries are making innovative use of ICTs. The potential is enormous. But realizing it and building a digitally competent society poses a range of challenges for technology, policy, society, regulation and business. Digital technologies require fair and meaningful allocation of resources, reliable connectivity, and privacy and security. Today, 3.6 billon people are still offline.   ITU research shows that while close to 87 per cent of people are online in the developed world, in the 47 least developed countries a mere one in five people are connected.  Additionally, there is great variation in the ability of countries and stakeholders to master digital transformations. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only highlighted the critical role of ICTs to the functioning of society, but has further exposed the gaping ‘digital divide’ in access to and use of digital infrastructure, tools and platforms.  We must strive to overcome growing digital inequalities - including between women and men, young and old, and those living in urban and rural areas.

How can ICTs have a negative impact on climate challenges?

As more and more people become connected online, we see an increase in data traffic; in demand for data centres and other energy-intensive ICT equipment; and in demand for digital services. Our growing digital society results in a growing carbon and waste footprint, which severely impacts the environment.

It is important to closely monitor growth in order to weigh the benefits and costs of ICTs. The ICT ecosystem has been estimated to account for more than two per cent of global carbon emissions. Direct carbon emissions come from ICT manufacturing and energy consumption through use and disposal.

ITU has a broad portfolio of activities to map and minimize the carbon footprint of ICTs.  This includes the development of standards to reduce e-waste, which in turns helps increase the global e-waste recycling rate, and increases the number of countries that have legislation on e-waste. The UN’s 2020 Global E-waste Monitor highlights that the way we produce, consume and dispose of electrical and electronic equipment, such as computers and mobile phones, has become unsustainable. E-waste contains harmful substances such as chlorofluorocarbons. If not managed in an environmentally sound manner, these can negatively impact human health and the environment.

How can ICTs contribute in tackling  climate change?

ITU’s recent publication on ‘Frontier technologies to protect the environment and tackle climate change’ , describes how digital technologies can contribute to a more sustainable future. If developed and deployed with societal and environmental impact in mind, digital technologies serve as powerful tools with transformative effects on the sustainable development goals (SDGs). While they are the fastest-growing source of energy consumption, digital technologies have the potential to improve energy efficiency, and other processes as well, which could contribute to a lower-carbon future. ICTs have the potential to be part of the solution to address the world’s most pressing climate concerns and enable the much-needed transition to a circular economy.

Climate monitoring helps us understand and interpret recent changes, and forecast future predictions. Digital technologies help address the root causes of climate change through mitigation, for example by reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide and methane. Additionally, ICTs can be used to help countries and communities adapt to climate change by lowering risk and tolerating the effects posed by the consequences of climate change. For example, ICTs that include remote sensing and geographic information systems allow risk assessment of hazards. They also enable contingency plans to be put in place, that allow for more informed decision-making. During times of disaster, they are critical in delivering warning messages to people at risk.

What positive initiatives have been taken at ITU with positive results?

ITU continues to raise awareness on the role of digital technologies in monitoring, mitigating, and adapting to climate change. For example, ITU has helped countries set up multi-hazard early warning systems to be better prepared for the impacts of climate change. [The organisation]  also has activities that aim to protect human health and the environment by tackling e-waste. For example, the Global E-waste Statistics Partnershipdevelops e-waste guidelines to help countries identify best policies, and works to improve global e-waste data.In addition, it has been working closely with its membership to develop technical and green standards (also called ITU-T Recommendations) that enable coordinated and sustainable deployment of ICTs and digital technologies. Recently, ITU developed a landmark standard that provides guidelines for aligning the emission trajectory of the ICT sector with the targets set in the Paris Agreement, which is very useful for members of the ICT sector who are interested in meeting the 1.5°C scenario that was set in the agreement.

What must still be done?

Both climate change and digitalisation have tremendous impact on lives, and the interplay between them is critical. In this respect, dialogue between digital specialists, policymakers and environmental experts is important to seek ICT solutions that mitigate the effects of climate change.

Much more is required to accelerate climate action, assist countries in limiting climate change, and enable the world to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. This is also integral to achieving all sustainable development goals. The opportunity to keep the world from warming above 1.5 °C is closing very fast. Climate change is impacting all of us, including and especially the least developed countries and Small Island Developing States where investment in digital infrastructure and services is critical.

More evidence, analysis and foresight is required in our efforts to mitigate climate change.  Digital technologies can support research in this regard. There is need for digital governance and responsible innovation, especially with the fast growth of technologies such as artificial intelligence and ‘the internet of things’. Environmental considerations must become more integral in the design, development and deployment of digital technologies.

How do ICTs integrate sustainable goals?

When used effectively, technology provides efficient solutions for development challenges. ICTs can help to reduce poverty and hunger, boost health, create new jobs, mitigate climate change, improve energy efficiency and make cities and communities sustainable. For example, digital technologies can provide farmers and players in the agricultural sector better access to financial resources, and improve their ability to monitor and respond to the changing climate and environment. This directly connects to SDG 2. During the Covid-19 pandemic, ICTs also proved useful in disseminating crucial health information to the public, locating critical health assets, and managing resources in a rapid and responsive manner. The ITU Smart Villages platform was used to establish interactive voice service on Covid-19  in Niger. Through the service, citizens were able to access important messages from the ministry of health regarding prevention and diagnosis of Covid-19.

How can all actors become more responsible and integrate important sustainable values in their technological development?

Given the scale of the challenges, no single actor can tackle them alone. International coordination and cooperation are key to integrate sustainable values in digital transformation. The UN secretary-general’s new Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which ITU actively supports and helps to implement, is a significant milestone in achieving better digital cooperation globally.

Greater awareness and education on sustainable values, including the SDGs, can have a positive effect for stakeholders to adopt an environmental responsibility mind-set.

ITU will continue to support member states in harnessing the potential of ICTs to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other internationally agreed development goals. For example, reducing e-waste, emissions and energy consumption are important environmental responsible actions for all actors. This will require joint action by policymakers, multilateral organizations and the ICT sector to deliver at the required speed, scale, and complexity of transformation necessary to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

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