ICT emissions worse than previously thought

Monday, 20 September, 2021

ICT emissions worse than previously thought

Previous calculations that ICT is responsible for 1.8–2.8% of the world’s greenhouse emissions may be wrong, according to research from Lancaster University.

The researchers believe that these estimates fall short of the sector’s real climate impact as they only show a partial picture — they do not account for the full life cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure. This includes the energy expended in manufacturing the products and equipment; the carbon cost associated with all of their components and the operational carbon footprint of the companies behind them; the energy consumed when using the equipment; and disposal after the products have fulfilled their purpose.

The researchers argue that ICT’s true proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1–3.9% — though they stress that there are still significant uncertainties around these calculations. Although like-for-like comparisons are difficult, these figures would suggest ICT has emissions greater than the aviation industry, which is responsible for around 2% of global emissions.

In addition, the paper warns that new trends in computing and ICT such as big data, AI, the Internet of Things, blockchain and cryptocurrencies risk driving further substantial growth in ICT’s greenhouse gas footprint.

In their paper ‘The real climate and transformative impact of ICT: A critique of estimates, trends and regulations’, published by the journal Patterns, the researchers looked at two central issues — ICT’s own carbon footprint and ICT’s impact on the rest of the economy.

It has often been cited, and put into policy calculations, that ICT and computing technologies will lead to greater efficiencies across many other sectors, leading to savings in net greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the researchers argue that historical evidence proves the opposite; that over the years as ICT has become more efficient, ICT’s footprint has taken up a greater proportion of global emissions. In addition, ICT has driven wide-ranging efficiency and productivity improvements but, critically, global greenhouse gas emissions have risen inexorably despite all this.

This could be partly due to so-called ‘rebound effects’ where increased efficiencies result in increased demand.

“We know that ICT has an ever-growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy. But its relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question,” said Professor Mike Berners-Lee from Small World Consulting.

The researchers point out that to achieve net zero by 2050 — a target the planet needs to meet in order to keep global warming below 1.5°C — then:

  • Unprecedented coordination across the ICT sector and policymakers is needed to formulate a plan;
  • ICT organisations need to have legally binding net zero targets that also cover their supply chain emissions;
  • With competing demands on ICT such as workplace communications, leisure, Internet of Things, AI and bitcoin mining, in order to prevent runaway data demand, societies may need to consider prioritising some ICT uses above others;
  • Clear detail is required on a sector-by-sector basis of the emissions savings that ICT is expected to deliver, underpinned by transparent evidence that includes all related emissions.

The researchers recognise that several of the world’s technology giants have made statements on reducing their climate footprint; however, they argue that many of these pledges are not ambitious enough and industry self-regulation may not be sufficient to bring about the emissions reductions needed to reach net zero by 2050.

The researchers argue that, if global carbon limits were introduced, this would eliminate concerns over the ‘rebound effects’ so that ICT-enabled efficiencies could be realised without additional carbon costs.

They also warn against an over-reliance on renewables in calculations about future ICT greenhouse gas emissions because of limited supplies of vital commodities, such as silver, which are needed to make solar panels.

Dr Kelly Widdicks, co-author of the study from Lancaster University, said: “Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets. We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT’s environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in line with the Paris Agreement.”

The researchers’ next project, PARIS-DE, will investigate which mechanisms are needed to ensure digital technologies are designed to be compliant with the low-carbon objectives outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Olivier Le Moal

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