Climate change is recognized as one of the most urgent priorities of the 21st century and is a driving force for institutions and individuals to move towards a model of sustainable development.
At the recent COP24, the meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a global climate agreement was reached to achieve the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The COP24 agreement – which comes in the wake of the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2018 that warned of dire medium-term consequences of climate change – recognizes that coordinated international efforts are needed to curb the impacts of climate change.
From extensive flooding to droughts, hurricanes, wildfires and a rising sea level worldwide – climate change is contributing to an unprecedented scale of natural disasters. But as extreme weather events are becoming more severe and more frequent, information and communication technologies (ICTs) will be critical to accelerating progress against the harmful effects of climate change – and ITU is stepping up efforts to coordinate solutions worldwide.
ICTs can be key in responding to emergencies – and often times satellite communications are the only way of communicating when mobile cellular towers have been compromised and landline networks are down.
“In most emergencies… satellite systems that rely on solar power are the only option you have,” explained Simon Gray, Director of Humanitarian Affairs at Eutelsat, during the recent ITU Satellite Symposium. “The UN was very clear: disasters are going to become more frequent and are becoming more severe.”
As such, satellite companies are now working directly with the UN’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster to provide satellite services in times of emergencies, he said.
“Last year, with nine other satellite fleets, Eutelsat signed … the Crisis Connectivity Charter with the UN where we promised to supply pre-predictable solutions on a worldwide basis so that the UN can now start to plan their reactions in each country,” said Mr Gray.
Satellites are crucial for coordinating relief and recovery efforts, but they are just one way that ICTs are being enlisted in the response to climate change.
For example, ICT-driven early warning systems are analyzing real-time data to send out warning signals on impending natural disasters to citizens. Affected communities are alerted via their mobile phones and are given advanced warning and other information on disaster-stricken areas.
ICTs are also helping mitigate the impact of climate change on people and animals. For example, satellite imagery is tracking environmental changes in temperature, sea level or land use. In addition, submarine Internet Cables are being refitted to capture data about the sea floor.
Cities, which account for more than 70 per cent of global carbon emissions and 60 to 80 per cent of energy consumption, can be made smarter and more energy-efficient through the use of ICTs.
For example, ‘smart meters’ in buildings can provide real-time data that would optimize energy supply, improving buildings’ energy performance. Smart sensors can also be implemented to detect air and water quality alike, providing vital data for city stockholders to make the necessary adjustments.
Global platforms such as the United for Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC) have been instrumental in advocating for public policy to encourage the use of ICTs in transitioning to smart sustainable cities. More information on ITU’s work on Smart Sustainable Cities can be found here.
Emerging technologies including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data are the underlying technologies behind data-driven solutions for climate change.
ITU has been active in promoting the role of emerging technologies for sustainable development. The AI for Good Repository includes AI-based projects that are addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
However the ICT industry must also look inwards, for instance, at ways of reducing ICT energy use and electronic waste (e-waste). The rise of digital platforms and data-driven applications have contributed to an explosive growth in data traffic. The downside is that, in the growing information society, the ICT sector is a net contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to UN Climate Change.
For example, data centers require significant electricity to power and keep equipment cool. With the rise of bitcoin in the past couple of years, energy consumption of ICTs has only increased.
The recent Circular Economy Report, by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, provides a tool to estimate the carbon, energy, and landfill waste savings achieved by returning retired components to recycling centers. It helps ICT companies and others think about their e-waste and manage their operations more sustainably.
ITU’s international technology standards offer some guidance to improve energy efficiency, and applying best practices to cooling could reduce the energy consumption of a typical data center by more than 50%.
ITU also raises awareness and develops standards about the issues surrounding e-waste. Old phones and laptops can be recycled or, in some countries, returned to the shop where they were purchased for repurposing and reusing metals and rare minerals.
By Theadora Mills, @theadoramills