The Climate Group has just published a report on the impact of ICT on the environment called SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age. In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that while it was produced with BT’s involvement, I was not personally involved. The report quantifies and compares the carbon burden of the ICT industry with the opportunity of ICT services to abate the wider emissions of society.
Past analyses looking at individual services like tele-conferencing or wireless sensor networks, for example, have identified benefits of 50-fold and sometimes even more (eg, carbon emissions of flying compared to emissions of a tele-conference). But these approaches tend to take a micro view and often fail to take into account an allocation of the ICT infrastructure that needs to be in place to enable the particular example. A macro view is far more valuable.
Among the macro level reports, ETNO’s Speed of Light paper covers Europe. It is a pretty simple analysis to understand and identify a 10-fold benefit. ACEEE’s ICTs: The Power of Productivity, produced in February 08, covers the USA and concluded a 6-to 14-fold benefit.
What the SMART 2020 report adds to the picture is a more comprehensive approach and an attempt to tackle the question on a global basis (and so take account of emerging economies). The paper concludes that by 2020, ICT can drive abatement of 15% of global emissions, a 5-fold benefit compared to the calculated emissions burden of the sector.
So, SMART 2020 provides a more conservative view, which I think reflects the global angle. The impact of ICT on emissions remains a very new area with developing consensus on standards, boundaries of ownership, cause and effect. As these areas of understanding develop, our analyses will continue to evolve. I am sure we will see more papers on the topic, and I think they are needed.