UN: IT Could Cut Emissions By 40 Percent

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But figures vary and only better metrics will help the IT industry to convince the world it can help as well as harm the environment

The United Nations group charged with managing IT and telecoms standards and development has claimed that green IT is central to its mission and that technology could help cut emissions from other industries by as much as 40 percent.

Technology not only contributes to climate change but can also help combat it, said Malcolm Johnson, director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU),  in a video interview, which echoed what many in the industry have been saying – for instance in our interview with Johnson’s boss, Dr Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU. 

“In terms of the emissions in other sectors that can be reduced by using ICT, the transport sector, the energy generation sector, buildings and waste disposal, estimates vary between 15 percent and 40 percent,” said Johnson in an interview with Lightreading.com.

The large difference in the estimates is down to the fact there is no agreed methodology for calculating carbon emissions and IT’s contribution to reducing them, according to Johnson: “In ITU we have put a lot of effort into developing a common methodology which should considerably increase the credibility of our argument that ICT’s have a great role to play in combating climate change.”

The idea that IT can help combat climate change is one that has obviously found ready acceptance from IT vendors keen to deflect criticism of their contribution to global warming by announcing how the technology they sell can actually improve matters. Siemens for example claims to get around 20 percent of its revenue from its “extensive environmental portfolio”. “IT should not only be seen as a cost and a source of carbon emissions, but as the essential means by which an organisation can reduce its energy use elsewhere,” said Brian Charlton, Siemens’ business manager for ‘IT for Sustainability’.

As well as discussing how IT could help other industries improve their environmental credentials, the ITU admits that the IT industry also has work to do. In terms of the direct emissions from IT equipment and the IT industry, estimates vary from 2 percent and 3 percent if radio is included, said Johnson.

According to Johnson, the ITU is working on green standards including those for so-called next generation networks which he said could reduce power consumption by around 40 percent of the high-speed communications networks compared to existing PSTN [public switched telephone network] technology. “It’s a great challenge but as the only UN organisation dealing with ICTs it is a challenge the ITU has to meet,” said Johnson.

Standards are an important part of the process of developing more energy efficient technology, according to the ITU. “We are concentrating very much these days on efficiencies – particularly energy efficiencies and how they can be achieved by standards,” said Johnson.

As part of its actions around climate change, the ITU will be holding a conference around the topic. The ITU’s Third Symposium on ICTs and Climate Change will be held in Quito, Ecuador on 8 to 10 July 2009.