Is technology doing enough to stop climate change?

Over the last 10 months we have witnessed the meltdown of the modern financial system, which has led to a global recession. Understandably, the policy and media focus has switched swiftly to all matters economic, but it was a discussion at the inaugural event of Intellect's High-Tech Low Carbon Week which reminded me there is more than one global crisis to be dealt with. And we don't have time to lose on climate change. If we take our eye off climate change during the recession, it will be a pretty grim world come the recovery.

The debate asked, "Is technology pulling its weight in the fight against climate change?" The answer became clear when Kevin Anderson, director at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned that the world was poorly positioned to stave off four degrees of warming, never mind the stated target of two degrees, and that there was still a lot to do for everyone, not just the ICT industry.

The debate has progressed since the ICT industry hit the headlines when Gartner reported the sector was responsible for two per cent of global carbon emissions. It's clear that as modern society becomes increasingly digitised, and the world's developing nations continue to grow, global ICT emissions may increase. There is no doubt the industry must do all it can to reduce its carbon footprint. But technology must also go further and serve as the tool to reduce the emissions of other sectors.

The industry has been working hard to put its own house in order. The vast majority of ICT equipment has been steadily increasing its efficiency and reducing energy consumption. From printers to computers, to mobile phones to datacentres, ICT equipment has been getting greener.

For instance, TV standby has been reduced by more than 90 per cent over the last 10 years. In the 1990s, TVs would use around 15W in standby. Today the average standby of the top 10 selling TVs in the UK is under 1W, and the best in class is under 0.3W. And as far as silicon chips go, chip efficiency, or the power needed to process a given amount of data, has improved a millionfold in the last 30 years, while continuing technological developments mean this trend looks set to continue. Moore's Law applies to more than just size.

Most of these improvements have been made through investment in innovation and R&D, not through regulatory intervention. So we might be compared to the airline industry in terms of emissions, but there is little chance that the fuel efficiency of aeroplanes is going to improve by an order of magnitude in the next 10 years. Instead, efficiency improvements are likely to be incremental - and ironically many of those will be down to the intelligent application of ICT.

Of course, some of the improvements are negated by the increasing proliferation and use of ICT equipment and changes in behaviour - the idea that modern PCs use less power but now are left on all night downloading videos by the user. But the industry is making great strides in reducing the emissions of its own equipment and will continue to do so. The real winner in the fight against climate change comes when you look at the ability of ICT to reduce other high-polluting sectors' emissions and the way in which ICT can transform the way we live our lives.

Our technologies are delivering emissions reductions across the wider economy; agriculture, for example, is just one sector where the introduction of IT promises to deliver huge cuts in carbon emissions and improvements in productivity, through everything from remote crop monitoring systems to molecular biology and the growth of bioinformatics. Not only have we allowed businesses and individuals to do things that weren't previously possible, but we have made processes inherently more efficient.

We've divided these into three loose categories which we call enhance, enable and transform.

Firstly, enhancing technologies make existing processes or systems more efficient; for instance, Philips CosmoPolis streetlights are roughly twice as bright, but only use half the power of conventional street lights.

Secondly, enabling technologies let us do things in different ways - they enable new processes. So, for instance, digital evidence seals allow us to store evidential material in digital form, with every amendment logged and authenticated. The potential is now there to save untold reams of paper.

And finally, transformational technologies change things altogether and lead to the creation of new, lower carbon business models. Broadband, for example, is a transformational technology. Thanks to broadband we have the ability to videoconference and download digital content. Broadband has changed the whole telecoms marketplace and is leading to new, virtualised business models for high-impact activities such as travel.

While ICT emissions may increase in future as the world moves into the digital era, the reductions they enable in other sectors, and the transformations in human behaviour they facilitate, will play a huge role in reducing UK carbon emissions. ICT is the tool that is ready to use now - it can bring in smart infrastructures, buildings, processes and smart homes to cut carbon immediately, reducing the carbon build up while other tools are developed.

With Kevin Anderson's warnings ringing in my ears, it's clear we have a lot more to do to avert dangerous global temperature rises and ICT is a key player in this challenge. Ultimately, the big prize lies in finding a way to efficiently and cost-effectively de-carbonise energy production.

I believe we will see the coming together of bio-tech, high-tech manufacturing and engineering - facilitated by the intelligent application of ICT. So, in the long term, we will have to use technology to strip the carbon from our energy, but ICT can deliver hugely beneficial quick wins right now.

Combating climate change will be a long, hard journey, and it's important we realise the power of ICT to take those first assured steps.

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