Energy efficiency to fight climate change: the vital role of ICTs

By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary General, (pictured)
Winter 2017

Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary GeneralThe need for innovative energy solutions to reduce carbon emissions has never been more urgent. And with last month's Bonn Climate Change Conference fresh in their minds, world leaders now face the challenging task of finding ways to translate ambition into action.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help us fasttrack progress. Innovative ICTs are powering smarter electricity grids, greener cities, and more efficient agricultural practices. If we do it right, ICTs can enable a 20% reduction of global carbon emissions by 20301 and thus significantly contribute towards the Paris agreement targets.

At the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the United Nations' specialized agency for ICTs – we are working to provide innovative technological solutions and standards to help our government and private-sector members reduce their carbon emissions.

To minimize the carbon footprint of the digital ecosystem, ITU and its members committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions per device by 30% by 2020. To meet this commitment, ITU has, for example, developed new international standards to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of power feeding systems and data centres.

But this progress did not happen overnight.

When I first joined ITU almost 11 years ago, climate change did not really figure in ITU's work. I led the publication of ITU's first report on ICTs and climate change in December 2007, which highlighted that while ICTs are a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, they are also an important element in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases.

Since then, ITU has been helping Member States understand how to use ICTs and satellite terminals for disaster warning, mitigation, response and recovery.

In addition to its focus on climate change adaptation and mitigation, ITU has been leading the work to capitalize on the potential of ICTs to secure an energy-efficient future.

EARLY PROGRESS In many areas, we are seeing progress on energy efficiency – sometimes known as 'the fifth fuel' due to its great potential to save energy.

Many big Internet companies, for example, are taking steps to power their activities with renewable sources2.

In addition, emissions avoided through the use of ICTs are nearly ten times greater than the emissions generated by deploying it3.

ICT-enabled solutions such as machine learning, advanced data analytics and distribution management systems have the potential to manage electricity consumption and significantly improve the efficiency of electricity grids. ITU's Standardization Section has outlined how smart grids can help to mitigate climate change by building more controllable and efficient energy systems.

Cities emit more than 70% of the world’s total greenhouse gases, according to UN figures. ICT-enabled solutions such as sensors, smart meters, automated control systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT) offer an opportunity to reduce cities’ energy costs and decrease their emissions by transforming urban infrastructure with intelligent buildings, smart street lights, more efficient transportation systems, and smart energy and water networks.

ITU is working on a number of initiatives to build smart, sustainable cities. In 2016, for example, ITU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) launched "United for Smart Sustainable Cities" (U4SSC) to respond to the Sustainable Development Goal 11. U4SSC is now supported by 16 United Nations bodies, and 50 cities have joined the pilot project.

These cities are implementing a set of key performance indicators developed by ITU and UNECE that fall under five overarching categories, one of which is environmental sustainability. Under this indicator, the cities are measuring air quality, CO2 emissions, energy use, and indoor pollution. Recently, ITU published a case study on Singapore's efforts to apply smart city innovations, providing a valuable reference point to other cities pursuing greater efficiency and sustainability.

ITU standards have an important role to play. Standards are essential for the interoperability of city systems, and to achieve consistent levels of performance and quality, as well as economies of scale. The ITU Study Group on IoT, smart cities and communities develops international standards to ensure this, and encourages the coordinated development of IoT technologies.

Since 2007, ITU has been committed to increasing awareness of the potential of ICTs, promoting innovation, and establishing standards to ensure that ICTs maximize energy efficiency.

New and innovative partnerships and initiatives, especially between the ICT sector and the energy sector, and between public and private entities, will be essential to enhance energy efficiency and make the Paris agreement targets a reality.

Only by collaborating together, pooling resources, avoiding duplication of effort, and concentrating on our core competencies will we harness the power of ICTs to reduce global CO2 emissions, and thus help to minimize the negative impact of climate change for billions of people, leading to a better and more secure future for all

1. GeSI Smarter 2020: The Role of ICTs in Driving a Sustainable Future. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative. 2012
2. Clicking Clean: Who is Winning the Race to Build a Clean Internet? GreenPeace, 2017.
3. GeSI Smarter 2020: The Role of ICTs in Driving a Sustainable Future. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative. 2012