Inside the Information Society: Meeting the climate challenges of ICTs

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog is the second of two about the impact of ICTs on the environment.

In last week’s post, I wrote about the impact which ICTs are having on climate change. To summarise:

There are two sides to ICTs and climate change

On the one hand, the ICT sector – networks, devices, data centres – is responsible for a growing share of global power consumption and carbon emissions. Its share of global emissions is now around 2.3%, about the same as that of aviation. Not huge, but important and growing more than twice as fast as emissions from the rest of the economy.

On the other hand, ICTs have the potential to improve productivity – and so reduce power consumption and carbon emissions – in other economic sectors, such as power generation, transport and construction. Industry sources like the Global eSustainability Initiative believe that carbon savings from ‘smart systems’ in these other sectors will exceed the growing carbon costs of ICTs.

In truth, it’s hard to tell which of these is more significant. The impact of the Internet of Things and other new digital technologies on energy consumption will be large. Fluctuating energy costs will be important in deciding how businesses invest.

Understanding what is happening

Some commentators juxtapose these positive and negative impacts of ICTs on carbon. Last week, I argued that that’s wrong. The growth in carbon from ICT networks and use (which climate scientists call ‘first order’ or direct effects) is pretty certain, while reductions in other sectors (‘second order’ or indirect effects) are just potential. The two types of impact result from different types of ICTs, and decisions will be made by different groups of people.

There are two challenges here, not one, and both need tackling. Growing use of ICTs is desirable for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the problems caused by their growing power consumption. Increased use of ICTs to improve economic and productive efficiency is desirable as well, but isn’t happening as fast as had been hoped.

We need to minimise harmful direct effects and maximise positive indirect ones. So how? I’ll make four suggestions, drawing on past work for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Rethinking the relationship between ICTs and environment

I’ve commented in earlier posts about the lack of integration between global approaches to ICTs and those to sustainable development. It’s almost as if, in international public policy, they lived in separate silos. ICTs were barely mentioned during the UN climate change negotiations that took place last December, just after the WSIS ten-year review.

Maybe that’s because the importance of ICTs has grown so fast this twenty years that other policy fora haven’t yet caught up. If we’re to address the two challenges of climate change, though, that must change. We need much stronger understanding of the complex relationships between ICTs and the environment (which requires research) and deeper dialogue between ICT and environmental policy communities (which requires institutional reform and political will).

There may also be a clash of cultures here. The Internet’s dynamism’s been built around ‘permissionless innovation’, with minimal constraints on new ideas and inventions. Environmental policy relies as heavily on the ‘precautionary principle’, auditing innovations to make sure they do no harm. Finding a happy medium between these will be challenging.

Mitigating the climate cost of ICTs

Recognition there’s a problem is the starting point for addressing power consumption in the production and the use of networks and devices. As Internet pioneer Vint Cerf told IISD, it will be ‘helpful to remind engineers that sustainability is an important part of design, given that we now realise that our present practices may not be sustainable.’

ICT product markets are driven by innovation, not by price – enabling new things to be done, offering customers something more exciting than competitors’ (or last year’s) model. More attention’s paid to adding functionality than to extending battery life. Rapid improvements in technologies and capabilities lead to rapid turnover of devices: two or three years for a phone or laptop in industrial countries.

Business incentives to reduce the climate cost of new devices are therefore weak – but there are ways we could address this. Standard-setting processes, for example, could pay more attention to power consumption and environmental outcomes – extending battery life for example, improving charging technology, reducing the incentive to run devices in standby mode. Finding ways of reducing churn – extending the life of devices – could also make a difference because of the power used in manufacture.

There are bigger business incentive to reduce power consumption in transmission and in data centres, because their high costs fall hard on business bottom lines. Data companies are exploring ways of cutting power in data centres – by reducing heat generation for example, improving the tolerance of equipment, storing energy, or associating them with renewable power sources. This really matters because data centres are the fastest growing power consumers in the sector, and their power needs will grow faster still as the Internet of Things expands.

ICT businesses have sought to minimise regulation but that seems also likely to be needed. Apart from telecoms infrastructure, the ICT sector’s been lightly regulated compared with others such as oil and pharmaceuticals. Environmental audits are commonplace in extractive industries and in construction. Regulatory agencies and ICT businesses could work together to explore ways of protecting the environment without threatening the dynamism of innovation.

Fostering smart systems

The problem with smart systems is that not enough is happening – not even in industrial countries where the environmental and financial savings might be greatest. Decisions to deploy them aren’t made by ICT companies but by the managers of utilities, factories, construction and transport businesses.

Those decisions require big investments. Utilities and corporations will make them on financial, not environmental grounds. They’ll make them if the financial savings from deploying smart systems exceed the financial costs of investing in them in the short to medium term. This is more likely to happen if energy costs are rising, less if they’re falling. Hence the significance of new energy sources such as fracking, which may cut the cost of energy and reduce the incentive for businesses to smarten.

There’s some scope here for dialogue and public policy. “GeSI: has tried, with mixed success, to persuade big businesses in other sectors that smart systems would benefit the bottom line as well as the environment. More dialogue between the ICT sector and those other sectors would be beneficial. Might the initiative be taken by a broader business forum like the International Chamber of Commerce?

More significantly, perhaps, governments could introduce environmental factors into business regulations, planning consents and public procurement policies. Businesses are likely to resist this, but it could have the effect of making ICT-enabled approaches more financially attractive to them.

Looking ahead

My final point’s concerned with foresight. Information technology is changing economic and social structures much more fundamentally than it’s changing individual business sectors. The analytical framework for ICTs and the environment, which I summarised last week, includes another set of impacts – ‘third order’ or societal effects.

These are much more subtle changes in our economies and societies than the ways we use our phones or the ways utilities provide us with electric power. They include changes in consumption patterns – for example, if we move to buy most goods online rather than in shopping mall, or rent time in autonomous vehicles in future rather than owning our own cars. And changes in the ways we work (such as telecommuting) and the kinds of leisure we enjoy (virtual reality); changes in where (and for how long) we live and in our social, personal and family relationships.

These third order impacts of the digital revolution are uncertain and unpredictable – not least because the technologies that we’ll then use are difficult to predict more than three or four years ahead. In the long term, though, they may have a bigger impact on power consumption and climate change than the first and second order impacts that currently preoccupy us.

Next week’s blog will look at Africa’s Internet priorities.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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