How is the ICT sector paving a way for a more sustainable future?

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News in questions (2021, week 7)

An increasing amount of stories on Big Tech and ICT solutions that facilitate the change leads to a more optimistic view of getting closer to the aims of The Paris Agreement. More and more businesses tend to follow this trend and invest in environmentally friendly solutions. Governments that have committed to reaching The Paris Agreement goals can’t do it alone. They can facilitate the change with informed policy-making and the right stimulus for the cause. But it is people — consumers and businessmen — that can make the real change.

ICT sector and climate impact.

First things first, according to a recent study by Lancaster University ICT sector is responsible for 2.1%-3.9% of global greenhouse emissions (1). I find this number to be very surprising. When people talk about carbon footprint it is usually about the impact of transport and factories. Apparently, data centres need a lot of energy to cool down servers. This is why Big Tech is increasingly interested in green energy.

You might have noticed that the ICT sector became a trendsetter in a more sustainable future by choosing renewable energy sources and facilitating positive changes (2). How?

Choosing renewable energy sources.

Big Tech have become trendsetters in buying and investing in clean power. In a recent article Financial Times listed Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft as change makers who have a big impact on climate friendly future (2). Data centres are increasingly being powered by renewable energy. It even became a competition among Big Tech companies that is celebrated by employees, media and the public. Few lovely stories:

· In 2020 Amazon “was the largest corporate clean energy dealmaker in the US“. It also has its own 253MW facility — Amazon Wind Farm Texas. (2)

· Second largest buyer of green energy in the US is Google. For Google in 2009 it made a lot of sense to start looking for clean energy options: “We’re a data-driven company. The science of climate change tells us that building a carbon-free electrical grid is an urgent global priority “ — Gary Demasi. Thus it showed its commitment to the cause and in 2010 Google signed a power purchase agreement to reduce its carbon footprint (3).

· Google has invested in sensor data and AI to improve data centres cooling efficiency. Now it is 30% more efficient. (4)

· Last year in January Microsoft announced that it will dedicate $1bn to an innovation fund with an aim to solve the climate crisis and become carbon negative by 2030 (5).

ICT sector creates products that can improve the efficiency of companies and contribute to reduction of carbon emissions.

Technology connects people and changes the way of organising production. The development of technologies such as Blockchain, IoT and AI might reduce 15% of carbon footprint. (1) 15% — I assume there is no clear way to actually know the exact number. Fundamentally, it is very difficult to calculate the digital economy and therefore its impact. But the trend is clear — ICT sector can to reduce carbon footprint.

But it is important to bear in mind that the ICT sector does not by default help to reduce climate targets. A recent study from Lancaster University raises some doubts and argues that efficiency increases energy consumption and could lead to more emissions. (Google: Jevons Paradox.) Others argue that energy consumption would increase even if efficiency would not improve. (1) Having these debates in mind, it would be unjust to rely only on solutions that the ICT sector offers. Governments and policy makers play a big role in making energy consumption greener.

Education and lobbying.

It is impossible to know everything technology development can enable. Maybe if people, businesses and governments were more aware of possibilities, a green future wouldn’t be so distant.

· Digital skills are very important here. If we know what is possible, we are more likely to look for ways to make our everyday life more efficient.

· There are fascinating innovations that could be enforced and stimulated by governments. The rules of the game are very important here. Governments could formulate and articulate policies, — so that we could use the advantages of existing technologies and innovations that are yet to come.

· Cooperation between the public and private sector is crucial here. By sharing data and insights they can enable each other to create new solutions. Google has identified its role in providing data and insights to enable others (5). Governments are increasingly encouraged to open data so that entrepreneurs could experiment and find new solutions. If you know some stories please share.

· Trendsetters like Bill Gates are also increasingly interested in climate change. He wrote the book How to avoid a climate disaster. Haven’t had a chance to read it yet, if you did share your opinion :) (You can also read short article in FT about his book: Bill Gates “My green manifesto” https://on.ft.com/2NBOKwi)

(1) https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-climate-impact-of-ICT%3A-A-review-of-estimates%2C-Freitag-Berners-Lee/6c214c0326408a3d9ca9914cc87771a95022dae0

(2) https://www.ft.com/content/0c69d4a4-2626-418d-813c-7337b8d5110d

(3) https://sustainability.google/progress/projects/ppa/

(4) https://podcasts.apple.com/lt/podcast/ft-tech-tonic/id1169101860?i=1000457766580

(5) https://www.ft.com/content/508f6836-383a-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4

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