Two years ago the Climate Group and Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) published SMART 2020. It was a revolutionary report which spoke about the IT sector’s potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to 15% of business as usual by 2020 at economy wide level. Among the sectors covered by this report, information communication and technology (ICT) based climate solutions had the potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emission by 7.8 GtCO2e i.e. five times higher than the ICT industry’s own emission and energy savings of around US $ 1 trillion by 2020.
According to the report, ICT can be most effective in saving energy in the electricity sector. Reports estimate that ICT based smart grid technologies could reduce 2.1 GtCO2e of global Greenhouse gas emission. Most of these smart grids are required in India because our Indian power grid loses one-third (precisely 29%) of electricity generated during long-distance transmission and zigzag distribution channels.
Is it not outrageously criminal to lose this electricity when millions in villages are waiting to get a few hours of electricity so that their children can study and the water pump can irrigate their fields? Is it not inconvenient to suffer long power cuts and miss out a favourite TV show, Sachin’s excellent batting against Australia or Spain’s historic World cup final victory? Is it not erroneous in an era of climate change to build more coal-based and nuclear power plants for providing electricity to all while conveniently ignoring these losses and creating a superficial electricity scarcity?
This crisis however provides a huge business opportunity for the Indian ICT sector. The sector can build and deploy real-time solutions to reduce these losses and transform the way our power grids function. This will help Indian ICT sector make more money, create more jobs and save the planet from catastrophic climate change. However, the question is will they do this? Will they come out of their comfort zone of treating climate change as risk and use it as business opportunity instead?
The sector’s carbon emissions are rising and surpass the aviation sector’s emissions. This will seriously dent their ‘clean industry’ image. Their business revenue will be impacted as the electricity cost will go up if the transmission grids are not made efficient with the use of renewable energy to match up with the developing digital infrastructure. It is up to the sector to choose what they want. I am sure that they definitely want to grow their business!
Just as mobile and internet have resulted in a global transformation in the way we communicate the ICT sector has a significant role to play in transforming the way we produce, deliver and use energy. For instance, ICT technologies have the potential to facilitate decentralised systems of energy production, paving the way for a significant increase in renewable energy. Such dynamic new energy platforms can save a lot of energy and create thousands of new clean energy companies thereby significantly reducing pollution while creating millions of new jobs. It is a win-win situation for the planet and their business.
However, this transformation is not going be so easy. The energy sector is much larger, more entrenched, and far more politically powerful. Fossil fuel energy companies have enormously benefited from the status quo, and are at best, interested in a slow transition to low-carbon economy. The power and coal companies have the ability to use political power in the current system, but the influence of ICT companies has also increased significantly in the past 10 years, due to their contribution to the GDP. ICT companies can provide some of the best examples of how environmental performance is also good business, as highlighted by ICT companies occupying nine of the top 20 slots in Newsweek's Fortune 500 Green Index.
In fact, there is an internal imperative for ICT sector to act. Greenpeace’s Make IT Green report which was released earlier this year, predicted a huge requirement of electricity in current business as usual pattern due to massive growth in its digital infrastructure. At current growth rates, data centres and mobile networks, alone will require about 1,963 billion kilowatts of electricity in 2020. This is more than three times their current consumption, over half the current consumption of the United States and more than the combined consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil. Most of this consumption will happen in India and China which will see a massive growth in digital infrastructures.
The potential is huge - social image is at stake, business opportunity is available and political clout is growing. Everything is set for the ICT sector to become the climate ‘leader’ the world desperately needs. But will the sector deliver? Now that itself is a million dollar question.