The practical contribution of ICTs to sustainable growth

Application of information and communication technologies (ICT)-based solutions in industry could yield dramatic energy savings, and ultimately lead to a more sustainable society.

Information and communication technologies have the potential to help Europe overcome its biggest challenges. Only through the development of an energy-efficient society can we hope to face the difficult realities of climate change, energy security and the current economic crisis.

In an effort to insure that ICTs contribute fully to a sustainable society, the European Commission published a Communication in March 2009 announcing its intention to set out concrete measures on ICT's role in contributing to sustainable growth. In addition, the Commission announced a public consultation to establish a common base for commitments to energy efficiency. This consultation will ultimate lead to a Commission recommendation in late 2009.

The Commission has called for the development of a working partnership between the ICT sector and the other major energy-using industries. It believes such an entity can improve energy performance across the board.

Energy saving in the ICT sector

As a first step, it is interesting to analyse the impact ICT itself has on the environment, as the sector is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions. A 2007 report published by technology research specialist Gartner indicates that the ICT sector is responsible for as much carbon pollution as the airline industry, at present 2% of the carbon emissions in Europe. Gartner believes it has the potential to save five times its initial carbon footprint.

While perceptions of the ICT sector's environmental impacts as being more benign than those of the automotive or airline industries, in reality it contributes significantly to emissions. The average server produces the same carbon emissions as a sports utility vehicle (SUV) consuming 15.68 l/100 km (15 miles to the gallon).

However, unlike other polluters, ICT is not only the problem, its also part of the solution. The industry can provide the tools to contribute to energy savings both within its own sector and in other areas. Even at a very basic level, the energy management, monitoring and awareness-raising potential of ICTs mean that they can offer huge savings across almost every industry. The European Commission has estimated that a 20% reduction in business travel, and an increase in ICT-facilitated tele-/ video-conferencing, would save approximately 25 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year (2.5% of the total emissions from the EU's transport sector, or 5% of the total emissions from the EU's agricultural sector).

However, the ICT sector must lead by example in terms of emissions and energy efficiency. The European Commissioner for Information Society and Media, Viviane Reding, has called for the ICT sector to reduce its own carbon footprint by 20% by 2015.

Often simple solutions bring promising results. Leading telecommunications company BT is already setting an example in terms of sustainability. Since reducing its carbon footprint by 60% from its 1996 level, the corporation has saved over €400 million in internal costs.

BT has also dealt with the large power demands of data centres by implementing the practice of 'mutualisation'. By sharing energy, storage, and computer capacity in this way, overall energy savings of up 70% are possible.

Further energy savings in the ICT sector could be possible through the reduction in energy intensity of ICT components. Such savings have already been made in terms of displays, with liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) leading to significant energy efficiency gains.
ICT solutions for other industries

Beyond the ICT sector itself, the energy-saving solutions that it offers can have a massive impact on the energy and environmental performance of almost every sector. However, to benefit fully from ICT solutions, companies must foster ICT developments and make the structural changes to their organisations to ensure they can take effect.

For example, business processes should dematerialise by switching to on-line services and make operations and supply chains more efficient. Other changes could include moving business to the Internet, particularly banking and real-estate companies.

The Climate Group's SMART 2020 report highlighted the huge energy saving potential of ICT solutions. Taking four case studies - motor systems in China, logistics in Europe, buildings in North America and power grids in India - the report concluded that €600 billion in energy savings could be made around the world (approximately 5% of EU GDP). It went on to say that by 2020 15% of emissions could be removed by the ICT industry engaging properly with the rest of society.

Three other areas - power grids, smart building and smart lighting - could also benefit from ICT solutions.

With the energy-transformation sector using a third of all primary energy, the European Action Plan for Energy Efficiency has targeted the power grid as one area that needs improvement. ICT solutions could help in improving transformation efficiency by identifying any problems before they compromise output. Moreover, they could improve the management of the grid in terms of the distribution of power. This could ensure stability and security of supply, and potentially lead to savings of 40%.
Energy efficiency in buildings and smart metering

Some 40% of energy consumption in Europe is related to buildings, making it the area with the largest potential for savings. To this end, ICT solutions such as energy-management systems could significantly improve energy efficiency when combined with better insulation, lighting and ventilation.

ICT-based smart metering could optimise the energy performance of buildings by providing consumers with information about their energy consumption and costs. Such meters are believed to lower energy consumption by at least 10%, and also contribute to raising awareness of energy efficiency among the general public. Moreover, they provide important data to electricity suppliers, who can then regulate their networks accordingly to cut unnecessary production.

As a result, the European Commission has called upon Member States to agree a set of minimum functional specifications for smart metering.

Lighting is another area where developments in ICT can have practical benefits. New technologies such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs) could potentially save 30% of today's consumption by 2015, and 50% by 2025. The concept of intelligent lighting could also offer real savings as sensing and actuation capabilities can now enable energy-efficient light bulbs to adjust to both natural light and people's presence.

Information and communications technologies hold the key to massive energy savings across a range of sectors, not least the ICT sector itself. The potential for energy monitoring and regulation, dematerialisation and energy efficiency that ICTs offer means that they can be both an immediate and long-term solution to high global energy consumption.

More information:

‘Commission pushes ICT use for a greener Europe' (European Commission press release)

‘Communication on mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy' COM(2009) 11 final, 12 March 2009

‘Addressing the challenge of energy efficiency through Information and Communication Technologies' COM(2008) 241 final, 13 May 2008


BT carbon impact assessment

SMART 2020 report