November 16, 2017

Further, faster, together: The vital role of ICTs in mitigating and adapting to climate change

By Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

As world leaders gather this week in Germany for COP23 to discuss the implementation of The Paris Agreement, at ITU we are working to ensure that modern technologies contribute to climate action in positive ways.

Just a few weeks ago, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in Geneva announced that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are the highest in 800 000 years.

Extreme weather events are happening with increasing frequency. Today, people are still recovering from the wildfires that raged across Northern California, the hurricanes that struck the Caribbean, and the mudslides that hit Sierra Leone.

Last year, natural disasters affected 445 million people across the world. Thousands of lives were lost.

And then there’s the economic cost. According to the World Bank, disasters cost the global economy $520 billion a year, pushing some 24 million people every year into poverty.

All too often it is the poorest who are hardest hit.

So what can technology do about it? How can information and communication technologies (ICTs) be part of the solution?

When I first joined ITU almost 11 years ago, climate change did not really figure in ITU’s work.

When we published ITU’s report ICTs and Climate Change in December 2007, the overwhelming reaction was: what have ICTs got to do with climate change; and, why is ITU getting involved in the issue?

What that first report said — and what ITU highlighted at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali that month — is that, although we recognize that ICTs are a contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more importantly ICTs are an important element in mitigating and adapting to climate change, and reducing overall GHG emissions. 

Since Bali, of course the ICT sector has experienced very high growth, and consequently its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has grown, but so has its impact on reducing overall GHG emissions.

The number of mobile subscriptions, for example, has risen from 2.75 billion to almost 7.75 billion.  And the number of devices connected to the Internet by 2020 is projected to reach 50 billion.

Recognizing that because of its exponential growth it is very difficult for the ICT sector to reduce its carbon footprint, ITU adopted in 2014 a target to reduce emissions per ICT device — that is by 30% by 2020.

All ITU standards now give serious attention to reducing the energy consumption of devices and services, this includes significant examples such as the energy consumption of data centres, and the sustainable power feeding solutions for future 5G networks.

ITU’s membership of 193 governments, 450 private sector companies, 150 universities, civil society and other regional and international organizations all place great importance on this work.

Most significantly, ITU maintains the international treaty on the use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits. This is to ensure their efficient use, harmonizing worldwide spectrum allocations and coordinating the use of satellite orbits to prevent them interfering with each other and with terrestrial services, or colliding into each other!

This, together with ITU’s technical standards, reduces the cost of ICT devices and services as a result of economies of scale, and ensures they can operate across borders even when offered by different manufacturers and service providers.

ITU also helps ensure that our Member States understand how to take advantage of the huge opportunities that ICTs have for social, economic and environmentally sustainable development, as well as for disaster warning, mitigation, response and recovery.

To assist with disaster recovery, ITU deploys emergency satellite terminals immediately in the wake of natural disasters, such as the recent Hurricane Irma and many others.

The people who survive these disasters are often left with nothing. They’ve lost their homes, their crops, their dignity. Sometimes they have no choice but to leave everything behind. The UN Refugee Agency reports that on average 21.5 million people are forcibly displaced by weather-related disasters each year.

Partnerships can have a big impact in our fight against climate change.

This is why, for example, ITU has joined the WMO and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO to study how submarine telecommunication cables could be used as sensors for climate monitoring and threats from tsunamis.

We call upon the private sector and other key stakeholders to join in this endeavor.

We need partnerships such as these to make projects a reality, especially public-private partnerships.

As the GeSI Smarter2030 report shows, by the year 2030 ICTs have the potential to hold global CO2 emissions to the 2015 level, and reduce our consumption of scarce resources. Only by collaborating together will we move climate action — and all the other UN Sustainable Development Goals — from vision to action, and transform the digital revolution into a development revolution.

This blog has been adapted from a speech delivered at GeSI/DT COP23 Event on November 14, 2017.  

Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General
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Further, faster, together: The vital role of ICTs in mitigating and adapting to climate change

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