Monday, December 14, 2009

IT gears up for a showdown in Copenhagen

With less than a week to go until the UN climate talks begin, delegates from around the world are preparing to descend on Copenhagen, each with an idea of what they want to see in the final agreement.

One of these delegations is the UN body for IT, known as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU will run sessions at Copenhagen aimed at persuading delegates and negotiators of the benefits of mentioning IT in the text of the final agreement.

Such a move would be key to gaining worldwide recognition of the role that IT could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Malcolm Johnson, director of the ITU’s standardisation bureau.

“We are only going to achieve the necessary reductions [in greenhouse gases] if the contribution that ICTs can make is recognised,” he said.

A study by NGO The Climate Group found that IT alone could reduce C02 emissions by 15 per cent by 2020, and some in the industry feel that this figure could be as high as 20 per cent.

Benefits of using IT to cut C02

Mentioning IT’s ability to reduce emissions in the agreement’s text would be a catalyst for two reasons.

First, it would force governments and businesses to see IT as an enabler, rather than a cost.

Second, it would help spur the rapid transfer of IT-based emission-reduction solutions to the developing world by enabling firms to receive carbon credits for investing in projects overseas, said Catalina Macgregor, the ITU’s green IT liaison officer.

“Once the sector is mentioned in the Copenhagen text, you can start on a framework for including IT projects in the Clean Development Mechanism,” she said.

Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), governments and businesses in the developed world can receive carbon credits for investing in certain types of carbon reduction projects in the developing world. But it does not recognise IT projects yet.

Doing so would facilitate the transfer of a number of technologies with huge potential to prevent carbon and other greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by the developing nations.

Technologies with carbon-saving potential

These technologies fall into three main areas: transport, buildings and electricity supply.

In transport, technologies such as road pricing, Oyster pay systems and intelligent transport systems could all help reduce traffic.

In the building sector, low-energy LED lighting systems and building management systems can help reduce emissions, while better logistics software could help reduce the estimated 12 per cent of materials delivered to work sites that are left unused.

But the biggest potential for IT to tackle emissions is in the electricity supply sector. A report by the Electric Power Research Institute found that smart meter and smart grid technologies alone could reduce emissions in the US by almost five per cent by 2030.

Even in major economies, these technologies have not been pushed hard enough by governments, according to Emma Fryer, head of climate change programmes at IT industry body Intellect.

“IT is a hopelessly undertapped resource. People still see it as a polluter and not a tool. Getting a mention in the Copenhagen text will help change that attitude,” she said.

Fryer partly blames a Gartner study from 2007 widely cited in the media, which claimed IT was responsible for two per cent of global emissions – the same as airlines.

Coupled with a general ignorance of IT, this statistic led political and business leaders to ignore the benefits it could offer.

Carbon credits for IT projects in the CDM will help remedy this, said Fryer.

“It will spur research and development and drive competition. Most importantly, it will help developing countries to leapfrog inefficient technologies to more efficient ones,” she said.

The Greening Government ICT Strategy

The UK’s Greening Government ICT Strategy was launched in July 2008. It has two aims: to make the energy consumption of our IT systems carbon neutral by 2012, and to make them carbon neutral across their whole lifetime, from manufacture to disposal, by 2020. One year on from the launch of the strategy, the government has reduced its carbon emissions by more than 12,000 tonnes, but there is still some way to go. Next summer it will update the strategy and produce a handbook for all public sector CIOs and CTOs with clear guidelines on the actions they need to take in every area.

Catalina Macgregor, founder of the CIO Council Green ICT Delivery Unit in the Cabinet Office, said: “The workbook contains a code of conduct for datacentres, printers, mobile phones, paper, ink cartridges and many other things. The CIOs will review it from January and the new targets will be announced in September next year.”

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