Emissions from computing and ICT could be worse than previously thought

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A greater proportion of greenhouse gas emissions could be attributed to global computing than was previously believed. These emissions will continue rising unless there is action, as a new study reveals.

Researchers from Lancaster University and Small World Consulting Ltd have claimed that the previous estimates of ICT's global greenhouse gas emissions at 1.8-2.8% are likely to underestimate the sector's true climate impact. They only provide a partial picture.

Researchers point out that these estimates don't account for the entire life-cycle of ICT products or infrastructure. They include the energy used in manufacturing them, the carbon cost associated to all their components and their operational carbon footprint. The energy they consume when they are being used and their disposal once they have served their purpose.

Researchers believe that ICT could account for around 2.1-3.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, they caution that these calculations are subject to significant uncertainty. These figures suggest that ICT emits more than the aviation industry (which is around 2 % of global greenhouse gas emissions). Although it's difficult to compare like-for-like, they are still possible.

The paper also warns of new ICT trends like big data, AI, and the Internet of Things as well as blockchains and cryptocurrencies that could lead to significant growth in ICT's greenhouse gases footprint.

The researchers examined two key issues in their paper "The real climate, transformative impact and ICT: A criticism of estimates, trends, and regulations" published today by Patterns. They focused on ICT's carbon footprint and its impact on the rest.

It is often cited and used in policy calculations that ICTs and computing technologies will increase efficiency across many sectors, leading to lower net greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers claim that historical evidence supports the contrary. As ICT has grown in efficiency, ICT's footprint has taken on a larger share of global emissions. ICT has also driven productivity and efficiency improvements across a wide range of industries, but the most important thing is that global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise despite this.

This could partly be due to the so-called'rebound effect', where higher efficiencies lead to increased demand.

Small World Consulting's Professor Mike Berners Lee stated: "We know that ICT plays an ever increasing role in society and brings efficiency to almost all corners of the global economy. It's not as simple as people think. "Our work attempts to shed some light on this important question."

Researchers point out that net zero must be achieved by 2050 to maintain global warming below 1.5Cthen.

To achieve net zero by 2050, it is necessary to have unprecedented coordination between the ICT sector as well as policy makers.

ICT organizations must have legally binding net zero targets, which also include their supply chain emissions.

Societies may have to prioritize certain ICT uses over others due to competing demands such as work communications, leisure, Internet of Things and AI. This is to avoid runaway data demand.

It is necessary to provide sector-by-sector details on the expected emissions savings that ICT will deliver. This must be supported by transparent evidence that includes all emissions.

Researchers acknowledge that technology giants around the globe have made statements about reducing their carbon footprint. However, they contend that these promises are too ambitious and that industry self-regulation is not sufficient to achieve the emission reductions required to reach net zero by 2050.

Researchers argue that global carbon limits would remove concerns about'rebound effects' and allow ICT-enabled efficiency to be realized without additional carbon cost.

The limited supply of essential commodities such as silver that is required to make solar panels means they warn against relying too heavily on renewables when calculating future ICT greenhouse gas emission.

The Lancaster University co-author of Dr. Kelly Widdick's study said that "Much more must be done by ICT sector to understand its footprint and mitigate it, beyond focusing primarily on a transition towards renewables and voluntary reduction targets." It is necessary to have a solid evidence base on ICT's environmental effects, as well as mechanisms that ensure responsible technology design in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

PARIS-DE is the next project of the team of researchers. It will examine the mechanisms that are required to ensure that digital technologies comply with the Paris Climate Agreement's low-carbon objectives.

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More information: The real climate and transformative impact of ICT: A critique of estimates, trends and regulations, Patterns, DOI: 10.1016/j.patter.2021.100340 The real climate and transformative impact of ICT: A critique of estimates, trends and regulations,