In 2008 The Climate Group produced a report (with the help of McKinsey) for the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) looking at the impact of IT on a low carbon economy. The report – SMART2020 - evaluated the potential for information and communication technology (ICT) to enable a low-carbon economy. It concluded that through its contribution to dematerialisation, smart buildings, smart power, smart industry and smart transport, ICT could facilitate emissions reductions of five times the ICT sector's own emissions, or 15% of total BAU (business as usual) emissions by 2020.
Well the report has now been updated and the SMARTer2020 research study has identified 16% more savings than was calculated in the original research.
The new GeSI study, released during the COP18 global climate negotiations in Doha, was conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and sponsored by Ericsson and others. It found that the increased use of ICT could cut global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 16.5% by 2020, amounting to $1.9 trillion in gross energy and fuel savings. While ICT’s own footprint is projected to rise to 1.27 GtCO2e by 2020, its abatement potential is seven times higher.
Luis Neves, GeSI Chairman, said “The ICT revolution is powering even more innovations than we had imagined, leading to greater potential to cut GHG emissions, and a smaller ICT footprint. SMARTer2020 shows the abatement potential of ICT is seven times the size of the ICT sector’s direct emissions. Information technology can drive the transition to a low carbon economy, with greater efficiency and the preservation of our environment”.
The SMARTer2020 report evaluates GHG abatement potential from ICT-enabled solutions across six sectors of the economy: power, transportation, manufacturing, consumer and service, agriculture, and buildings. Brief details of the six sectors are:
Power - ICT adoption in the power sector could yield 2.0 GtCO2e in abatement (or 22% of total estimated abatement total) mainly through helping create a more dynamic power market where supply and pricing responds to changes in demand.
Transportation - Emissions reductions could reach 1.9 GtCO2e (21% of total) as a result of improved logistics networks and fleet management systems, as well as technologies to enable flexible remote working, such as video conferencing.
Agriculture and land use - Emissions reductions from this sector could reach 1.6 GtCO2e (18%). ICT can help farmers accurately assess how much to irrigate and fertilise, helping reduce emissions.
Buildings - ICT can abate 1.6 GtCO2e (18%) in this sector by providing the systems required to support the generation of renewable energy and smart design and building management systems to reduce lighting and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning needs.
Manufacturing - ICT-enabled efficiency in factories and other manufacturing applications could allow for 1.2 GtCO2e (13%) in abatement through, for example, better control a motor system to match power usage to a required output.
Consumer and service - Emissions reductions in the consumer and service sector could reach 0.7 GtCO2e (8%). Online purchasing prevents travel to stores.
But the report calls for action by global policy makers to encourage the implementation of these ICT reduction solutions. It includes detailed national studies of the GHG abatement potential of ICT in seven countries - Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, the United Kingdom and the United States. It identifies how ICT is a critical tool in facilitating the transition to a low-carbon economy and provides specific guidance to policy makers on actions they can take to realise the GHG reduction potential outlined in the report.
There’s much more detail in the report and an overview in the video below.
Review: It’s a timely update and all the more welcome because it identifies even more savings through the use of ICT than the original SMART 2020 report.
The original work was highly regarded and has been a significant influence on views of the role of ICT in reducing emissions. Unfortunately, though, it has remained largely theoretical. Most of the focus on ICT has been on reducing its own emissions, particularly in data centres. Most IT companies are busily focusing on the 2-3% of emissions that ICT creates, not the 16.5% it could save by 2020. Remember, if you reduce your IT emissions by 50%, it reduces global emissions by just 1-2%, but it’s easy and quickly produces financial returns. Using ICT to reduce emissions elsewhere will also save money, but it often requires up-front investment for slower returns.
That’s why this new report was released at Doha. If companies are reluctant to implement these emissions reduction solutions then policy makers need to take up the challenge to encourage companies to do their bit. Governments are well-placed to lead the way by implementing their own solutions. It doesn’t have to be a large-scale, one-off projects though. Building systems, for instance, can start on a small scale and build to cover an increasing proportion of the government estate. It’s the long-term commitment that’s important, something sadly lacking in the UK.