The global IT industry must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement’s global-warming targets, the United Nations’ peak telecommunications body has warned as it releases the first standard designed to help the industry meet those targets.

The new standard – ITU L.1470, called “GHG emissions trajectories for the ICT sector compatible with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement” – was developed with the support of the Science-based Targets Initiative (SBTi) and in collaboration with the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), GSMA and SBTi.

It offers “authoritative guidance on the pathway towards net zero emissions for the ICT industry,” ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao said in announcing the standard, which targets operators of mobile networks, fixed networks, and data centres.

SBTI’s science-based target approach has gained global traction, with 817 companies signed on – including 29 industry groups representing 30 per cent of mobile connections worldwide.

Australian giant Atlassian last year joined 86 peers in committing to science-based targets with a policy that would require it to run on 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, and achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.

Telstra, for its part, this month updated its own climate-change targets with a “significant acceleration” of its climate-change efforts that include becoming carbon neutral this year, “enabling renewable energy generation” that offsets its energy consumption by 2025, and halving carbon emissions by 2030.

It’s no token commitment: Telstra consumed 5.9 petajoules (5.9 billion megajoules) of energy last year and emitted 1.3m tonnes of greenhouse gases, according to CEO Andy Penn – who called climate change “the defining challenge of the 2020s”.

“The science is clear,” he wrote. “Climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is creating risks that impact our economy, our environment, our communities and each of us individually.”

Weighing the real problem

Telstra, Optus and other IT companies have generally been left to set their own climate-change plans and targets.

Their efforts have been independently evaluated by the likes of global organisation CDP, which has been tracking, collating and scoring climate-change plans from over 8,400 companies (including over 200 Australian firms) as well as 800 cities and 120 different states and geographic regions.

With a formal international standard now in place, IT companies now have a better idea of the degree of action necessary to reach the Paris Agreement’s global targets.

Yet it’s not always clear just how much the IT industry actually contributes to climate change, with activists happy to point the finger at everything from operating cloud data centres to watching movies on Netflix.

Carbon think-tank The Shift Project last year published a study by climate and computer-modelling engineer Maxime Efoui-Hess that claimed digital consumption was responsible for 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – and was increasing by 9 per cent annually on the back of carbon-spewing online video services.

Yet the Shift Project’s conclusion – that all online video sources were producing over 300m tonnes of CO2 annually – was challenged in a recent analysis that suggested the report had exaggerated real-world figures by a factor of up to 60.

Whatever the real numbers, increasingly proactive IT companies recognise the potential benefits – financial, operational, and PR among others – of slashing their carbon consumption and embracing a leaner, more efficient way of operating.

Although data-centre energy consumption is said to be doubling every four years, one recent Informa survey found that energy efficiency is still a low priority for data-centre operators that often had no idea about how efficient their facilities are.

There is hope: a study published last month found that data centres consume around 1 per cent of the world’s energy – but that, despite a more than five-fold increase in computing power between 2010 and 2018, overall energy consumption only grew by 6 per cent over that time due to increasingly energy-efficient computer designs.

With government, or despite it

Erratic Australian government policies puts the onus on Paris Agreement action squarely on IT companies – a far cry from the situation in Europe, where regulators are finalising an aggressive regulatory and action plan for data-centre operators broadly expected to be carbon-neutral by 2030.

That timeframe echoes the parameters of the new ITU standard – as well as those of Australia’s own 2030 climate change policy, which now targets around 50 per cent reduction in per capita emissions by 2030.

Yet those policies, the government concedes, are under review even as critics lambaste a long history of inaction and independent observers rate Australia’s climate-change policies as ‘insufficient’.

“Australia’s current policies are not in line with any interpretation of a ‘fair’ approach to... the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C limit,” the Climate Action Tracker concludes.

By leaning forward into the Paris Agreement – which the United States has rejected and the Morrison government is attempting to meet through creative accounting – technology companies have set an ambitious agenda that will be fuelled by improvements in technology efficiency, renewable power generation, and management.

Yet even the biggest companies admit they’re still pushing uphill in the short term: Atlassian, for one, is currently running on 15 per cent renewable energy – so increasing this to 100 per cent, across a network of offices in 7 countries, head of strategy and sustainability Jessica Hyman admits, “is new territory for Atlassian.”

Telstra’s Penn is similarly pragmatic as he pushes the company to bring forward its aggressive emissions-reduction targets.

“We recognise that we do not have all of the answers on how we will achieve this,” he admitted, “but our intent is clear, our ambition is set, and we are committed to achieving it.”