While COVID-19 has disrupted many societal behaviour patterns worldwide, some new, post-pandemic behavioural trends just might be worth keeping if we want to build back better – and greener – especially when it comes to ICTs. Instead of travelling by car to the supermarket or our favourite restaurants, we learn to cook at home with groceries we have ordered online. Rather than flying to conferences or business meetings around the world, we now connect to virtual events from our home offices.
Still, consumption through digital platforms and equipment is not without environmental and climate-related consequences. According to a 2018 estimate by Nature, information and communication technologies account for more than 2 per cent of global carbon emissions.
At the same time, ICTs can serve as key enablers that contribute to assessing climate change impacts worldwide. They do this by providing real-life risk assessment capabilities, enabling viable transformation, assisting in making informed decisions about climate change mitigation, and supporting knowledge sharing.
A public webinar was recently organized by ITU-D to further understand how we might leverage ICTs to fight climate change and rebuild greener economies after COVID-19. Following a welcome to all the panelists and participants by Ahmad Reza Sharafat, Chairman of ITU-D Study Group 2, the webinar was moderated by Aprajita Sharrma, Co-Rapporteur for ITU-D Question 6/2 (ICTs and the environment).
The climate connection to coronavirus
The webinar featured in-depth deliberations on the value of Earth observations for climate action and the accelerated use of technology to promote low-carbon behaviour post-COVID-19. Panelists also debated how the clean tech sector proposes to change its role towards sustainability in a post-pandemic era.
Sara Venturini, who leads the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Secretariat’s work to promote the use of Earth observation data, shed light on the positive impacts of COVID-19 on the space industry. She explained how big data analytics services along with promising solutions from Earth observation community are already seeing more demand as they serve as useful tools for tracking both pandemic and climate impacts.
Satellite observations show measurements of COVID-19 impacts on the environment, such as concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, will not decrease as a result of lockdown measures, Ms. Venturini noted. “The most substantial impact of emission reductions on atmospheric GHG concentrations is visible in urban areas, where emission changes can be detected by direct flux measurements,” she said.
According to Ms. Venturini, peer-reviewed scientific publications demonstrate that while climate does not influence the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in a direct way, there is a need for a coordinated assessment of the potential association between COVID-19 and climate. “The measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis are no substitute for long-term mitigation emission reduction measures by countries under the international climate regime, namely the Paris Agreement,” she said.
In green economies, ICTs are key
UNESCAP Economic Affairs Officer Janet Salem discussed how digital technologies can enable a circular economy. A key part of the solution is for governments to encourage greater use of ICTs for sustainability, she highlighted, presenting several examples of green behaviours involving ICTs, such as using remote sensing and machine learning technologies including image recognition to monitor, assess and sustainably manage plastic waste.
Ms. Salem also emphasized another exciting application area is the use of AI in sustainable product design. “Digital tools can help design materials to be formed out of a great mix of things to have specific properties, especially metals,” she said. In fact, “the European Space Agency has been using AI to understand what specific combination or recipe of alloy can produce the technical specifications needed for the product, while still meeting the specifications for recycling at the end of its life,” she explained.
The conversation then turned to clean tech, with GSMA’s resident expert Dulip Tillekeratne presenting his organization’s studies on green energy, along with key findings and examples of MNOs taking lead in natural resource management (NRM), e-waste, management of plastics and recycling, as well as towards converting “bad grid and off-grid” towers to renewable solutions.
ITU-T Working Party 2/5 Chairman Paolo Gemma shared details on the development of ITU standards with emphasis on their use in applying smart energy solutions and advancing a green transition through ICTs. For instance, the standard developed by ITU-T L.1305 on data centre infrastructure management system uses intelligence strategies based on big data and AI technology to actively predict and automatically manage IT infrastructure resources in ways that drive down system costs while boosting energy efficiency.
Mr. Gemma also noted that ITU has recently published a document on efficient ICT solutions towards climate change adaptation. “ICTs can help reduce global emissions by 15%,” he noted, emphasizing that global challenges such as climate change can be addressed by frontier technologies, thanks in part to solutions offered by ITU. “ITU is helping the ICT sector move towards a carbon neutral path,” Mr. Gemma said.
Towards an economically and environmentally sound recovery
As the world sets its sights on the recovery stage of the pandemic, governments can encourage the greater use of ICTs for sustainability in two key areas: environmental policy and economic incentives. ITU members can use different technologies to achieve environmental goals just as they did to fight the pandemic. Incentives to include environmental goals or applications in ICT-relevant policy should be considered as well. COVID recovery plans are often accompanied by economic stimulus packages. Funds earmarked for ICTs can also serve as further incentive to leverage ICTs to achieve environmental goals.
As we move out of our lockdowns, we have an unprecedented opportunity to develop new habits that can lead us to safe limits, both in terms of public health and within a 1.5-degree planetary warming scenario. While the webinar expert panelists showed how ICTs play a key part in an economically and environmentally sound recovery, it is our combined hope technologies can be used to leverage that opportunity much further.
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Photo by BBH Singapore via Unsplash.