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Striking a Balance: the Contribution of Green ICTs to Global Emissions

21 May 2013

The growing use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has both negative and positive implications for the environment. On the one hand, the ICT industry is estimated to account for as much as 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a share equivalent to that of global aviation. On the other, ICT-enabled solutions in sectors as diverse as transport, power, agriculture and manufacturing have been projected to cut estimated 2020 global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 16.5%, amounting to $1.9 trillion in gross energy and fuel savings.

Striking a balance between harnessing the benefits of ICT as an enabler of lower emissions and energy efficiency and, at the same time, limiting the scale of its environmental ‘footprint’ presents a significant challenge. The EU, Member States and the private sector have, in turn, begun to take action in this regard by developing ‘Green ICTs’– innovative technologies that are not only smarter and more sustainable, but also more economically viable.

Mapping ICTs’ environmental footprint

PCs, tablets, smart-phones and other everyday devices are making a significant – and rapidly growing – contribution to global GHG emissions. The ICT industry produces more than 830 million tons of CO2 annually, a figure that is projected to double by 2020. Crucially, this worrying trend is largely user-driven; over 75% of the overall figure comes from day-to-day usage of devices, rather than the manufacturing process itself.[1

The ICT industry’s contribution to GHG emissions can be broken down into three components. First, the electricity consumed by PCs and portable devices themselves places a heavy burden on power grids. The carbon footprint of PCs and monitors alone is expected to treble from 200 million tons in 2002 to 600 million tons in 2020, as the number of PCs reaches over 4 billion globally.[2]

Second, these devices make increasing use of ‘the cloud’: ubiquitously accessible internet that allows huge quantities of information to be accessed and stored remotely. The data centres that power the cloud consume large quantities of energy, as well as requiring water for cooling systems. They have been identified as the fastest-growing contributor to the ICT sector’s overall carbon footprint, at a growth rate of 7% per annum.[3] A 2012 Global Survey found that data centres’ power requirements grew by 63% globally to 38 gigawatts between 2011 and 2012 – an amount that would be sufficient to provide energy to all residential households in the UK, France or Italy.

Third, both devices and data centres place substantial demands on telecoms infrastructures. By 2020, GHG emissions from telecoms towers, base stations, fixed line broadband and other infrastructure components are projected to increase by 131% from 2002 levels.[4] This is a particular problem in the developing world, where fossil fuel-based infrastructure is expanding rapidly to meet growing demand for mobile broadband and other ICT services. In India, for example, it has been estimated that 67% of power consumed by telecoms networks is provided by diesel, a share that rises to an alarming 87% in rural areas.[5]

Limiting the impacts

The EU has taken a number of steps to mitigate these harmful effects, many of which focus on finding more effective measurements of the ICT sector’s environmental impact as a starting point. In response to the European Commission’s 2009 Recommendation on mobilising ICTs to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy, a study published on 18 March 2013 tested ten measurement standards with a view to finding a common approach.

The ICT Footprint report, prepared for the Commission by Ecofys, Quantis and Bio Intelligence Service with the cooperation of 27 global technology companies, concludes that the various methodologies are in principle compatible. Furthermore, it finds that a common measurement framework is required “in order to get a clearer picture, and eventually a reduction, of CO2 emissions.” Finding a common methodology to this end is one of the 101 actions set out in the Digital Agenda for Europe, the European Commission’s overarching digital policy framework.

The EU has also attempted to mitigate negative impacts by setting standards and codifying best practices. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) issues a yearly Code of Conductto inform and stimulate data centre operators and owners to reduce energy consumption in a cost-effective manner”. Participants include EU Member States and individual data centres, including two operated by Microsoft and Intel in Ireland.

This has been accompanied by concerted efforts from within the ICT sector itself to minimise data centres’ environmental footprint. Greenpeace’s 2012 How Clean is Your Cloud? report finds that, despite an overall need to lower emissions, there are “increasing signs that more IT companies are beginning to take a proactive approach in ensuring their energy demand can be met with available renewable sources of electricity.”

Harnessing the benefits

These initiatives have been accompanied by a broader shift in EU policy from simply limiting ICTs’ negative effects to facilitating their potential environmental and economic benefits.

These benefits are being increasingly acknowledged; a December 2012 report projects that ICTs’ potential abatement of global GHG emissions by 2020 is over seven times greater than the direct footprint of the ICT sector itself. ‘Smart’ power grids, more efficient transport infrastructures, innovation in the agricultural sector and energy-efficient building design are identified as the principle technological drivers of this contribution.[6]

Helen Donoghue’s blog post on smart grids and the IIEA’s infographic on electric vehicles underline the key challenge of promoting consumer demand – and, more importantly, trust – in energy technology as a means of stimulating investment and growth in the manufacturing industry. The EU has sought to address this challenge by engaging with and empowering the consumer. To this end, a public consultation on the EU’s 2030 climate and energy policy was launched on 28 March 2013, running until 2 July 2013.

The EU has sought to foster innovation in the energy technology sector as a whole with the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, established in 2008 “to accelerate the development and deployment of cost-effective low carbon technologies” through research and development and public/private sector cooperation. At the 2013 SET Plan conference, which took place in Dublin from 7-8 May 2013, EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger underlined the SET Plan’s role in increasing investment in energy technology research from €3.2 billion to €5.5 billion between 2007 and 2013.

Commissioner Oettinger’s speech also highlighted the EU’s next steps in developing the SET Plan. On 2 May 2013, the Commission published a Communication setting out an updated technology and innovation strategy with the aim of “reducing costs rapidly and speeding up the introduction of new sustainable technologies to the market”.

Among the measures proposed is an ‘Integrated Roadmap’, to be published by the end of 2013, which will identify areas of further cooperation between companies, investors and other key stakeholders in the ‘Green ICT’ area. The Communication also calls for the Commission and Member States to develop an Action Plan by mid-2014 setting out planned investments in support of future innovation.


Each of these measures indicates what a 2012 EUI report refers to as a “paradigm shift” in EU energy technology policy “from decarbonisation in favour of competitiveness”. Alongside initiatives to limit the footprint of existing technologies, the EU is paying increasing attention to fostering innovation, investment and competition in a growing ‘Green ICT’ sector. Its success in lowering GHG emissions will continue to rely on striking a careful balance between harnessing the benefits of this competitiveness and restraining its environmental impact.

[1] Climate Group and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), SMART 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age (2008), p.2, http://www.smart2020.org/_assets/files/02_Smart2020Report.pdf


[2] Ibid. p.19


[3] Ibid. p.21


[4] Ibid. p.22


[5] Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Recommendations on Approach towards Green Telecommunications (2011), p.18, http://trai.gov.in/WriteReadData/Recommendation/Documents/Green_Telecom-12.04.2011.pdf


As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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