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Using digital technologies to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Provide a case study on how digital technology is used to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
Polluted skyline with smoke stacks in distance
© RMIT 2023

When we think of how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have transformed how we work, how we live and how we communicate we can be forgiven for only seeing them as a “force for good” in the world.

But this may be far from the truth since recent work on ICT’s carbon footprint has put forward that even when all the credits from ICTs positive impact on many areas of the economy are tallied it may still be in carbon positive territory. Yes, the earth’s natural ecosystems might be better off without ICT! That’s a pretty big drawback in anyone’s book. In this case study, we take a closer look at ICTs carbon footprint, how it can be determined, and examine the role of responsible consumption and use of ICT in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.

ICT’s carbon footprint

An entity’s carbon footprint is the net amount of greenhouse gases (GHG), such as carbon dioxide and methane, that it releases in the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement of 2015 is concerned with global warming resulting from GHG emissions and identifies strict targets for nations in terms of GHG emissions. It is estimated that ICT contributes 1.8%-2.8% of global GHG emissions (Freitag, C., et al. 2021). Around 23% of ICT’s GHG are from what is termed embodied emissions (the GHG emissions that result from the mining and processing of raw materials, the manufacturing process of the hardware and its delivery), the rest is from use or operational emissions (from energy use and maintenance) and disposal of hardware (Freitag, C., et al. 2021). Data centres and mobile phones form a large portion of GHG emissions. Data centres consume massive amounts of power, partly due to the cooling systems required, whereas mobiles consume relatively little power but their short life span means embodied emissions and disposal overheads are high (roughly 50%).

ICTs positive impact on reducing GHG in other sectors of the economy needs to be part of the carbon footprint equation. If these credits or offsets are considered, some argue that overall ICT would reduce GHG. These estimations are seen by others as being too optimistic since the money saved by efficiencies gained through ICT use is likely to be reinvested to grow the business which results in the growth of GHG emissions.

Renewable energy systems potentially offer major reductions in GHG. If greater use is made of renewable energy sources to power ICT then GHG emissions would decline but much of the embodied and disposal emissions associated with ICT hardware may remain. In addition, there are still embodied and disposal emissions in the renewable energy manufacturing supply chain, think about solar power systems for instance.

Governance and responsible consumption

The reality is that without a determined intention to reduce GHG emissions, ICT’s power demands will accelerate exponentially as resource intensive data mining, simulations and AI applications become more widespread.

Governance systems in organisations must address the responsible use of ICT in line with the UN SDG 12 otherwise it will be ignored. As individuals we too need to take a responsible approach to our use of ICT and mobile technology. For mobile devices, the mining companies mining the raw materials need to be more efficient and reduce waste, use more renewable energy sources and use fuel efficient plant and vehicles. The manufacturing process should include recyclable components at the design stage. The software industry needs to be efficient in software design and coding to minimise the load on processors and input and output from ram. Consumers should consider using their mobile for longer if it is fit for purpose. Rather than throwing it away, passing it on to someone who values it can extend its life. Mobile phones use a relatively small amount of electricity but accessing the internet on a mobile phone brings into play data centres and networks. So self-regulation of internet use is something that can be considered (easier said than done!).

Lessons learned

  1. ICT has a growing carbon footprint even when its positive impact on many areas of the economy is considered. Organisations need to be more proactive in reducing ICT energy use.
  2. Organisations can all have strategies, plans, policies and allocated responsibilities to manage their carbon footprint.
  3. Reduction in GHGs caused by ICT are unlikely to happen without well thought through governance systems in organisations that cover mobile use and ownership, internet use and other ICT (e.g. servers, desk-top computers, laptops, tablets and printers).
  4. Individuals should consider what responsible management means to them in relation to ICT’s carbon footprint?
© RMIT 2023
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