Is ICT a ‘good guy’ or a ‘bad guy’ in Sustainable Development?

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Everyone knows the statistics published by Gartner in 2007: the Information & Communication Technology (ICT) industry represents 2% of total CO2 emissions, which is as much as the whole airline industry. ICT can be seen as a bad sustainable development (SD) citizen in many ways: large data centers are consuming as much energy as small towns, the ICT industry produces hundred millions of devices every year, including laptops, routers, PDAs or cell phones, with a lifetime of between two and five years, and very little is done to collect the used devices and recycle them. On top of this,  uncertainties regarding microwaves' effect on the brain make people think it is dangerous to  use mobile telephony extensively. Should we therefore consider that a sustainable world would be a world where ICT has finally disappeared ?

Of course nobody’s perfect, and some of the criticisms leveled at ICT have an element of truth. The question of the power consumed by data centers is valid, the number of devices is increasing faster than the world’s economic growth rate and the question of microwaves is still on the table, even if nothing has been proved so far.

But is the glass half full, or half empty?

Let’s take the statistics the other way around. If ICT is producing 2% of total CO2 emissions, it means that other industries are generating the other 98%. And the good news is that ICT can help reduce this 98%, by enabling green business practices throughout the enterprise and initiating business innovation. In July 2008 the Climate Group estimated that ICT could reduce CO2 emissions by more than five times its own footprint at that time: a massive 15% of total CO2 emissions!

How is this possible? Because ICT is a ‘soft’, i.e. dematerialized technology, it can compete effectively with ‘hard’ technologies that need to move thousands of tons of steel and other materials to get things done. Cars, trucks and airplanes are made from tons of metals and plastics, use tons of oil to work, and generate tons of CO2.

The most common course of action is to reduce travel by using videoconferencing and other remote collaboration tools. Instant messaging, unified communications, document sharing, video and web conferencing generate three benefits: they save cost, reduce CO2 emissions, and improve work-life balance and team spirit. And from this we can write the universal law of successful ‘green’ products: a ‘green’ service needs to deliver at least three benefits: cost saving (short ROI or TCO reduction), an environmental or social benefit and a third one, such as work-life balance, improved employee productivity or reduced executive stress and fatigue.

There are plenty of other ideas we can implement to reduce travel: telecommuting solutions for home workers, managing a fleet of vehicles to optimize itineraries and minimize gas consumption, telemonitoring, telemaintenance, automatic reordering of vending machines, etc.

But this isn't the only avenue: virtualization and grid computing can make the huge power-hungry data centers that are so difficult to cool down obsolete. And virtualization has another benefit: it allows people to work remotely with any terminal. You don't need to reorder a new PC every two years, and you can work from anywhere. This provides four benefits: TCO reduction, CO2 emissions reduction, better work-life balance and reduced of electronic waste.

Other avenues include the social dimension of sustainable development. Remote monitoring technology allows older people to be monitored and treated at home without needing to leave their friendly environment for an inhuman hospital. Again three benefits: cheaper healthcare, happier patients and better for the planet.

We can multiply the examples: RFID in supply chains, NFC for micro-payments and video for remote access to public services in rural areas. The potential to leverage ICT for sustainable development is limitless, and I tend to agree with the statement of the Climate Group that ICT can reduce total CO2 emissions by 15%!

But this shouldn't stop IT and telecoms firms from drinking their own champagne and keeping their house in order. We can drastically reduce our own CO2 footprint, better process our electronic waste and continue to address the question of the impact of microwaves on human beings’ health. Acting like this will make ICT the a ‘good guy’ in sustainable development, and build a better world where the ‘soft’ replaces the ‘hard’ as often as possible.

Let’s take the statistics the other way around. If  ICT is producing 2% of total CO2 emissions, it means that other industries are generating 98% of  total CO2 emissions. And the good news is that ICT can obviously help reduce these 98%, by using ICT to enable green business practices throughout the firm and initiate business innovation for a network-centric company. In July 2008 the Climate Group has assessed that savings in CO2 emissions made possible by ICT could be more than 5 times ICT’s own footprint, i.e. 10% of the total CO2 emissions!

How is this possible? Just because ICT is a ‘soft’, i.e. dematerialized technology, it can compete quite effectively with ‘hard’ technologies that mean moving thousands of tons of steel and other materials to make things done. Cars, trucks and airplanes use tons of oil to work and generate tons of CO2 when they are used.

The first obvious idea is of course to reduce travel by using videoconferencing and other remote collaboration tools. Instant messaging, unified communications, document sharing, video and web conferencing generate three benefits at the same time: they save cost, they reduce CO2 emissions and they increase the comfort at work and the team working spirit. And here is the law of ICT impact on Sustainable Development. To be successful, a ‘green’ service shall deliver at least three benefits, cost saving, an environmental benefit and a third one, eg comfort at work, employee productivity or reduction of stress and fatigue.

Playing with reducing the need to travel, there are plenty of other ideas we can implement: telecommuting solutions for the home, management of a fleet of vehicles to optimize itineraries and minimize gas consumption, tele-monitoring, tele-maintenance, etc.

But this not the only avenue. Virtualization and grid computing allow to ‘break’ the huge data centers so difficult to cool down and so hungry of electricity. But also virtualization has another benefit: it allows people to work remotely with whatever terminal you may find. You do not need to reorder a new PC every two years, and you can work from everywhere. Four benefits here: TCO reduction, CO2 emissions reduction, increased comfort at work and reduction of electronic wastes.

Other avenues are working on the social dimension of sustainable development. Remote monitoring technologies allow older people to be monitored and cured at home without a need to leave their friendly environment to an inhuman hospital. Again three benefits: cheaper for the collectivity, increadibly better for the patient, and good for the planet.

We could multiply the examples: use of RFID in supply chains, use of NFC for micro-payments, use of Video for remote access to public services in rural areas, the potential to leverage ICT for Sustainable Development is without limit, and I tend to agree with the statement of the Climate Group: savings in CO2 emissions made possible by ICT could be more than 5 times ICT’s own footprint, i.e. 10% of the total CO2 emissions !

But this shall not prevent IT and Telecoms firms from drinking their own champagne, and sweeping in front of their own doors. We can drastically reduce our own CO2 footprint and we will continue to address the question of the impact of waves on human beings. Acting like this will help recognize more and more ICT as a ‘good guy’ vis-a-vis Sustainable Development!

Axel Haentjens
Directeur des Partenariats Cloud et Services Digitaux d’Orange Business Services, ma mission est d’animer une communauté de partenaires pour développer des propositions de valeur commune à l’intention de nos grands clients français et internationaux. Entré en 1995 dans le Groupe Orange, j’ai été successivement Directeur Stratégie et Marketing de Transpac, Directeur du Marketing de Global One, Senior Vice President Strategy d’Equant, Directeur du Marketing et de la Communication Externe d’Orange Business Services, et plus récemment Directeur Marketing et International d’Orange Cloud for Business. En parallèle à mes différentes fonctions, je gère la Communication sur la Responsabilité Sociale d’Entreprise d’Orange Business Services depuis 2006.