ICT may be responsible for up to 3.9% of emissions

By Dylan Bushell-Embling
Tuesday, 14 September, 2021

ICT may be responsible for up to 3.9% of emissions

The ICT sector could be responsible for more of the world’s carbon emissions than previously thought, according to new research.

Modelling from Lancaster University and sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting suggests that ICT’s true proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1% to 3.9% — higher than the previous estimates of 1.8% to 2.8%.

This would mean the ICT sector is responsible for more emissions than the aviation industry, which makes up around 2% of global emissions.

According to a research paper published by the partners in the journal Patterns, prior estimates do not account for the full life cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure.

This includes the energy expended in manufacturing the products and equipment; the carbon cost associated with all of their components and the operational carbon footprint of the companies behind them; the energy consumed when using the equipment; and their disposal after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Meanwhile, new advances in ICT such as big data, AI, the IoT, blockchain and cryptocurrencies risk further increasing ICT’s global greenhouse gas footprint, the researchers argue.

The paper also questions the received wisdom that advances in ICT will lead to greater efficiencies — and thus lower emissions — across other areas of the economy. In reality, historical evidence suggests the exact opposite, it argues, with ICT’s footprint taking up a greater proportion of global emissions.

The researchers argue that meeting the global goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 will require unprecedented coordination across the ICT sector and policymakers. They assert the need for legally binding net zero targets for ICT organisations that also cover their supply chain emissions.

“We know that ICT has an ever-growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy,” said Lancaster University Professor Mike Berners-Lee, also the founder and Director of Small World Consulting.

“But its relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question.”

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Olivier Le Moal

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