Technology needs a green vision

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Feature story - November 17, 2010
I recently bought a Smartphone and was thinking of how these new-era communication devices have helped us keep a track of information on our fingertips. Being an environmentalist, I was thinking of the contribution this industry has made towards a greener planet.

Let’s see, how many times do you use a cell phone or Skype to talk to your friend/family/client, instead of travelling all the way to meet them? Or, how many important text messages/emails do you receive that otherwise would have to been communicated through a slower inefficient method?

All the chatting and messaging does help cut some emissions. Every 100 miles we fly – we add 44 pounds of CO2 to the environment. So, the information technology and communication (ICT) sector has directly or indirectly, helped cut down our carbon emissions – especially if we use these communication tools properly.

But then I thought, is there a darker side to this industry? At first, I could only think of the issues being addressed right now, like phasing out of toxics from equipments and recycling of electronic devices. However, as I started researching this topic, I was baffled by how the growth of this sector is coupled with greenhouse gas emissions. Did you know that by 2020, around 2 trillion units of electricity will be required by the global ICT sector to power text message/emails communication? Does this mean that there will be dirty coal power expansion in the absence of clear renewable energy policy of ICT sector?

The global Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the information and communication technology (ICT) sector was 830 MtCO2e in 2007 and it is estimated to increase to 1430 MtCO2e by 2020. Almost double! Telecom sector alone contributed 2 % of India’s GHG emission in 2007. This figure has already gone up with the sectors economic growth.

Currently, the ICT sector is trying to work on energy efficiency but the purpose behind that is to cut costs and increase profits. However, the efficiency gains are lost because of the gains from the increase in the number of server farms and mobile towers, especially as this growth is not on clean and green energy infrastructure.

Looking at the various aspects of carbon emissions, I came across the energy consumption of the ICT sector. Their big air-conditioned buildings run on grid power largely dependent on fossil fuels and the mobile towers use more than 2 billion litres of diesel annually to run and deliver services emitting approximately 6 million tonnes of CO2 annually. At this rate, I think the ICT sector needs to look for a greener option for their power production as they are becoming one of the biggest power consumers in India. Around 40% of their total operational cost is spent on energy.

Talking about electricity, I am amazed at the fact that while at an individual level we complain about shortage of electricity, thousands of villages in the country do not have access to it at all. But we still manage to exploit our fossil fuels and waste almost one-third of what we produce. All this when 400 million people are still waiting to get electricity in their homes.

As we depend on thermal based energy for most of our energy requirement, in order to get where we are, we burn over 600 million tonnes of coal every year. Shocked? With all the harm that this causes to the environment through mining, processing, burning, we waste around one-third of this because our centralised distribution system is inefficient in managing the resource and providing it where it’s needed. 

The industry that is responsible for revolutionising the way humans communicate and has made globalisation a reality definitely has the potential to bring about a change in the way energy is produced and distributed in India. India as a developing country needs its growth to strengthen its economy but the growth needs to be sustainable and follow a low carbon path. The solution is innovation in clean technological innovation and its massive upscale deployment at economy wide scale.

If the ICT sector decides to switch to renewable energy to power their infrastructure, they can reduce their operational costs and hence save billions of dollars, create millions of clean jobs and open new market opportunities in energy innovation and assets management. Apart from being an efficient business measure that would ensure huge savings for the sector, the concept also comes as a business opportunity.

In the current scenario when energy is scarce from both the environment and economic point of view, better management and evaluation is required to make sure it gets as efficient as it can. This is where the ICT sector stands at a strong position to apply their technological knowledge and develop applications and devices to do so. The goal is efficient production and consumption instead of more energy production and less consumption.

This is where I ask – if the ICT sector is ready to start pushing for development and deployment of clean technology at a larger scale to save billions of dollars on energy and if they are willing to push for a legislative framework that would support a smarter distribution system for the same.

On November 18th, Greenpeace along with CIOL will host a conference attended by all stakeholders of the ICT industry and renewable energy industry in India with the topic of discussion being “Decarbonized Economy: opportunity and responsibilities of ICT sector in a changing climate.” This platform will hopefully help get an answer for all the questions which plague this growing industry.

- Akshey Kalra