Connected Technology and Data Are Part of the Solution for Environmental Sustainability

D. Kehoe

Summary Bullets:

  • ICT contributes to a carbon footprint, but stats alone do not provide the full picture.
  • The industry is setting its own goals, but also enabling so many other sectors to be greener.
  • In the past two years, technology really kept us connected in the most challenging times.

GlobalData’s thematic research shows sustainability is one of the most important themes discussed in corporate boardrooms.  While previous decades have witnessed environmental movements, the current wave is unprecedented.  Each headline-grabbing event reinforces public opinion that companies must become more sustainable.  Sustainability is being reported in annual reports and established into corporate strategy.  Over the coming decade, the issue will further transform the way that business is conducted and extend across the supply chain.  Companies that take sustainability seriously now will be better placed to succeed, and technology will be part of the solution.

Transforming from Within

The ICT sector, like many others, has challenges.  A European Commission-funded research project calculated that five billion downloads and streams from the 2017 song “Despacito” consume as much electricity as several African countries in a single year.  Other research projects that technologies make up 4% of greenhouse gases, which could double by 2025.  Looking into the sector, some estimates show edge devices (e.g., mobile phones, wearables, and connected peripherals) make up between 3% and 41% of global ICT energy consumption.  Mobile device penetration has challenges.  On the surface, there are some credible statistics to show that ICT generates ‘too much’ emission.  But metrics alone do not show the big picture.

The ICT sector has been transforming from within and allows other sectors to better prepare to meet their green objectives.  Many areas like data center energy consumption stabilized while new constructions, especially of mega-facilities, accelerated with cloud adoption over the years.  Technology is also enabling cities, commercial buildings, construction, and major industries like manufacturing to reduce emissions.  ‘Green’ has a topic for a while, but has set some new directions over the years.  In 2016, the mobile sector, through the GSMA, became among the first to commit to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  The group is also working with its members to achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050.  Other recent examples of progress include:

  • BT just set its zero-emission goal forward by a decade to 2030. Colt Technology Services also announced in the past weeks a 2030 target.
  • Since July, Vodafone now uses renewable energy to power its entire European network.
  • Deutsche Telekom publishes one of the most comprehensive and transparent metric-based environment, social, and governance (ESG) frameworks known in the industry.
  • China Mobile, for example, is decarbonizing its own energy grid with 5G.
  • AT&T plans to increase carbon savings 10 times in its own operations footprint by 2025.
  • Web 2.0 companies – although owners of the world’s largest data centers and global private networks – are shifting to sustainability and net-zero commitment openly and publicly.

Digital Double Counting

Counting ICT emissions, alone, does not tell the full story.  The ICT industry is enabling many other sectors to reduce their carbon footprint.  For example, the World Economic Forum (WEF) finds that, by 2030, ICT technology will help reduce industrial emissions by 12.1 billion tons, nearly 10 times the amount emitted by the ICT industry.  Some of these trends were discussed last week at Huawei Connect by Chairman Eric Xu.  (These trends are corroborated by other sources.)  Other material from the WEF shows a path for how ‘digital technology’ can reduce global carbon emissions by 15%.  Connectivity is a key enabler helping many industries achieve their sustainability goals.  Some of the major high-impact innovations are largely driven by IoT.  Examples include:

  • Smart Buildings: The digitization of energy management systems is making dramatic improvements in efficiency. Sensor and data-driven technology is helping to predict, measure, and monitor real-time energy performance and adjust environmental settings on the fly to align with current requirements, such as present occupancy levels.  Residential and commercial buildings account for one-third of global energy demand.  There are many other improvements in cooling technology (and renewables) that are reducing costs and carbon footprints in data centers.
  • Industry 4.0: The integration of ICT across manufacturing is driving energy efficiency, productivity, and cost reductions. This includes the reduction of unplanned downtime with predictive maintenance, reducing waste and the number of defective products.  The extensive use of sensors is credited for its ability to better monitor the environment (e.g., noise, water, air, land) for compliance.  Contactless processes are important for the environment as well as public health.
  • Smart Cities: Cities are 2% of the Earth’s surface, yet now home to half of the world’s population. They consume 75% of the world’s energy and emit 80% of carbon emissions.  Over 150 cities now have a smart city strategy.  ICT is embedded in each initiative.  IoT, for example, is being widely deployed in everything from IoT-enabled smart lighting to lower the carbon footprint to other ways to reduce traffic and road congestion.  The consequences for not having a smart city strategy (e.g., crime, pollution, social inequalities) only compound a global environmental problem.

ICT has earned its place as part of the solution towards sustainability and carbon neutrality.  The last two years taught us that tech brings many intangibles, such as improving mental health during difficult times through virtual connectedness.  Essential services such as education, healthcare, and public services moved online without much fanfare.  Even the workplace is changing forever because, in part, of underlying connected technology.  Serendipitously, ICT is showing a higher societal value – for example, keeping people safe traveling or while in the office.  There is a multiplier effect happening to support social progress, such as capturing, generating, and sharing data to monitor compliance.  These analytics will inform better decisions as we welcome a new era of ESG.

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