Previous estimates of ICT’s contribution to global carbon emissions, 1.8-2.8%, likely understate the sector’s genuine climate effect, say experts from Lancaster University and Small World Consulting Ltd.
The researchers note that some past estimates do not account for the whole life-cycle and supply chain of ICT goods and infrastructure, such as the energy required in producing the items and equipment, the carbon cost associated with all of their components, the energy consumed while using the equipment, and their repurposing rather than disposal once they have served their function.
Greater efficiency across many other industries due to increased ICT and computer technology has been widely touted to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.
The researchers, on the other hand, claim that data from the past demonstrates the reverse. The increasing efficiency of ICT means that its carbon footprint now accounts for a larger share of total world emissions. ICT has improved efficiency and production, yet global greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.
Rebound effects, in which more efficiency leads to higher demand, may be partly to blame for this phenomenon.
Small World Consulting’s Professor Mike Berners-Lee said that we are all aware of the increasing importance of ICT in modern life and the efficiencies it has brought to almost every sector of the global economy. However, the connection to carbon reduction may not be as obvious as many believe. Our research seeks to shed some light on this pressing issue.
According to the study’s authors, unprecedented coordination across the ICT industry and policymakers is required to design a strategy to attain net zero by 2050. This is a goal the world must fulfil to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Organisations in the information and communications technology sector should have legally enforceable net zero objectives that extend to all emissions produced by their operations.
Because of the many competing applications for information and communication technologies (ICT), such as business communications, entertainment, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and bitcoin mining, society may have to prioritise certain ICT uses over others to avoid runaway data consumption.
Sector-by-sector breakdowns of the predicted emissions reductions from ICT, supported by information that is both complete and publicly available, are necessary.
Several of the world’s technology companies have pledged to reduce carbon emissions. Still, the researchers suggest that many of these commitments are not bold enough, and industry self-regulation may not be adequate to attain net-zero emissions by 2050.
According to the study authors, ICT-enabled efficiency would be possible without incurring higher carbon costs if global carbon restrictions were implemented, removing worries about the rebound consequences.
They also advise against basing future ICT greenhouse gas emission estimates on renewables because of the scarcity of key metals like silver used to produce solar panels.
Dr. Kelly Widdicks of Lancaster University said that the ICT industry must do more to understand and reduce its impact than rely on renewables and voluntary carbon reduction objectives. The environmental implications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) must be well documented, and processes must be put in place to guarantee that technologies are responsibly designed following the Paris Agreement.
The next project for the research team is called PARIS-DE, and it will examine what processes are necessary to guarantee that digital technologies are developed in accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement’s low-carbon aims.
The EPSRC, a UK Research and Innovation division, helped support this report’s research.
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