Patterns magazine publishes a work stating that estimates of the impact of computing and ICTs on climate change fall short and that, if we do nothing, their emissions will continue to grow a lot in the coming years. The researchers, from Lancaster University and the sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting Ltd say that the above calculations only show a partial picture of the sector and therefore do not express its real climate impact.
The researchers note that some of these previous estimates do not take into account the complete life cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure, including aspects such as the energy expended in the manufacture of products and equipment, the cost of carbon associated with all its components and the operational carbon footprint of the companies behind them, the energy consumed when using the equipment and the management of waste at the end of its useful life.
The researchers argue that the real share of ICT in global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1-3.9%, although they stress that there are still significant uncertainties surrounding these calculations. Although homogeneous comparisons are difficult, these figures would suggest that ICTs have higher emissions than the aviation industry, which accounts for around 2% of global emissions.
The role of the internet
Within the ICT world, researchers warn that emerging trends such as big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies risk driving further substantial growth in the greenhouse gas footprint. ICT greenhouse.
In their work, the authors analyzed two central issues: the ICT carbon footprint itself, as well as the impact of ICTs on the rest of the economy. It has often been cited, and included in policy calculations, that information and communication technologies and computing will lead to greater efficiency in many other sectors, leading to savings in net greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse.
However, the researchers contend that historical evidence proves otherwise. That over the years, as ICTs have become more efficient, their footprint has absorbed a greater proportion of global emissions. Furthermore, ICTs have driven vast improvements in efficiency and productivity, but critically global greenhouse gas emissions have risen inexorably despite all this.
This could be partly due to so-called “rebound effects”, in which higher efficiency results in increased demand.
Global carbon limits
Scientists acknowledge that several of the world’s tech giants have made statements about reducing their climate footprint, yet argue that many of these promises are not ambitious enough and that industry self-regulation may not be enough to achieve the goals. Emission reductions needed to meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
According to the authors, if global carbon caps were introduced, concerns about “rebound effects” would be eliminated, so that efficiencies thanks to ICT could be achieved without additional carbon costs. They also warn against over-reliance on renewables in calculations of future greenhouse gas emissions from ICTs due to the limited supply of vital commodities, such as silver, that are needed to make solar panels.
The research team’s next project, PARIS-DE, will investigate what mechanisms are needed to ensure that digital technologies are designed to meet the low-carbon targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Text: Lancaster University