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Broadband a climate champion: ITU

Puts forward ICT to bridge the ‘carbon emissions gap’

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The ITU’s Broadband Commission report, The Broadband Bridge: Linking ICT with Climate Action, is a good piece of advocacy – but can its prescriptions work?

The premise of the report is simple enough: the Copenhagen Accord seeks a capping of emissions at 44 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2020, but that’s unlikely to be achieved. There’s a gap of maybe 9 Gt according to the lowest-ambition pledges already made; and ICT can help bridge that gap.

The approaches the report advocates are also straightforward: the IT sector needs “greening” (something nobody much doubts, since less hungry data centres, to pick one example, are also cheaper to run); and ICT can help other sectors by transforming industries (replacing physical goods with electronic where possible), by changing work behaviours (for example, replacing travel with telecommuting), by allowing developing economies to leapfrog high-emission phases (for example, letting them start out with smart buildings that can be carbon-neutral or provide a net benefit), and by helping mitigation efforts.

There's even a snippet of endorsement for Australia's approach, with the report calling for national broadband strategies - something that might at least offset the loopy bad-math sideswipes this country's National Broadband Network keeps copping from The Economist.

The report is released ahead of the June 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, it’s so worthy it hurts, and I’m pessimistic about it making any difference, because humans – particularly as we discover consumerism – prefer to add than to substitute.

While there are exceptions in books, newspapers, and CDs, all too often people layer the new on top of their existing behaviours, rather than substituting new-for-old. Sure, people buy, install and even use videoconferencing systems – but how many executives give up the travel budgets that represent their status?

Or there’s the interaction with communications technologies and work: in spite of peoples’ ability to telecommute, any Sydney commuter will agree with the official reports that traffic is getting worse as the years go by. Instead of replacing the trip to the office, the always-in-touch worker is supposed to do both - travel to the office, and make out-of-hours connections so as to keep working.

In spite of the pervasive belief that the Internet is destroying television, you only have to watch Twitter at the right time to see that people are adding their Tablet usage to their TV-watching.

The Internet is replacing any number of individuals’ trips to particular kinds of shops, but the products they buy from the Internet often involve international air freight as well as a local delivery van.

And that’s ignoring the other problem implicit in the ITU’s report.

As ITU secretary-general Dr Hamadoun Touré said in the report’s release: “Addressing climate change implies completely transforming our way of life, the way we work, the way we travel, shifting our model of development to a fairer, more sustainable model to ensure our survival. We need to put at stake all the resources available to us, and mobilize the political will to turn discussions and negotiations into agreements and actions.”

This is all well and good, but standing against it is a pervasive mood against top-down solutions – particularly in countries like Australia, America and the UK, and particularly in the face of the problems facing another top-down solution, the Euro.

Take the focus on smart cities and smart grids, for example: while these offer opportunities for advances in energy efficiency, the opportunity is offset by political opposition that ranges from the reasonable (if this is more efficient, how come we’re paying more for power to fund the smart meter projects?) to the nearly-reasonable (is smart metering at risk of being too intrusive?) to loopy (smart meters will give you cancer).

In other words, any top-down project needs to be extremely well-executed if it’s to survive on the ground.

In spite of my personal pessimism, however, I’d encourage you to take a look at the report: it provides a very good compendium of research and research sources into the interaction between ICT and energy, and even if the policy prescriptions don’t pan out, information is always a good place to start. ®

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