Six months out from a major United Nations conference on climate change, the ICT industry has staked its claim as a key enabler in the fight against global carbon emissions.

The industry, represented by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), has unveiled SMARTer2030 (pdf), its latest study on the environmental impacts of ICT adoption on a country and worldwide scale.

“ICT is a central pillar in the response to climate change,” GeSI chairman Luis Neves said.

The top finding of the study is the potential for ICT to “enable a 20 percent reduction of global CO2e emissions by 2030, holding emissions at 2015 levels.”

GeSI is particularly excited by this prospect as – it believes – ICT could solve a “seemingly intractable problem”.

“The global economy has so far failed to decouple economic growth from emissions growth,” it said.

“The world seems caught in a bind, having to choose between economic prosperity and environmental protection.”

But such a trade-off would not be necessary if the steps taken to grow the economy did not automatically result in more emissions.

GeSI argues its modelling shows this is possible as long as the steps taken to grow the economy involve digital technology and ICT.

“By rolling out identified ICT solutions across the global economy, total global emissions of CO2e could be cut by 12Gt [Gigatons] by 2030, promoting a path to sustainable growth,” Neves said.

GeSI’s model effectively tests the impact that ICT could have on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2014 prediction of global emissions growth to 2030.

“We wanted to inject ICT solutions into this scenario to find out what ICT-enabled savings alone could contribute to total emissions savings before adding the potential savings the IPCC had included in its scenario,” GeSI said.

Smart manufacturing, smart agriculture and smart buildings account for 54 percent of the total expected CO2 abatement potential using ICT.

Upgrade to small devices

The study also highlights a continued downward trend in emissions from ICT as a percentage of global emissions.

“Our research shows the ICT sector’s emissions ‘footprint’ is expected to decrease to 1.97 percent of global emissions by 2030, compared to 2.3 percent in 2020, which our previous report predicted,” Neves said.

“Furthermore, the emissions avoided through the use of ICT are nearly ten times greater than the emissions generated by deploying it.”

However, this is partly predicated on an assumption that people will gravitate to smaller, less power-hungry devices over time, and GeSI is cognisant of risks in its modelling approach.

“A rapid increase in the adoption of devices like tablets and smartphones, as well as services like cloud computing, broadband networks and data centres, will result in additional emissions from ICT,” GeSI noted.

“Holding down the ICT-sector’s own emissions as the number of devices increases is important and can be helped by, for example, switching from large hardware like PCs and printers to smaller and more efficient devices like tablets and smartphones and by bearing down on emissions from data centres.

“The switch to smaller and more energy efficient end-user devices is particularly important, as nearly half the sector’s emissions, in the scope of this analysis, comes from ‘end-user-devices’, rather than from networks or data centres”.

GeSI is using its latest study to spur action from policy makers, businesses and consumers.

From policy makers, it wants to see “ambitious” national CO2 targets, and investment incentives and consistent regulations for ICT.

It also wants business to embrace ICT in the drive to sustainability, and for consumers to “think digital” when it comes to buying decisions and using products.

The study’s release is timed to coincide with a ramp-up in the conversation on climate change ahead of the crucial United Nations Climate Convention Conference in Paris, which begins November 30.

“The long-term outcome of the new agreement requires a peaking of global emissions in ten years’ time, and a dramatic bending of the emissions curve thereafter,” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Christiana Figueres said.