Is staying online costing the earth?

Energy technology

Written by Susanne Baker, Head of Environment and Compliance at techUK

Digital technologies offer the UK a remarkable opportunity to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions, but more work needs to be done to ensure that the transition to a digital economy is a sustainable one, a new report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Climate Change, spearheaded by Antoinette Sandbach MP and Danial Zeichner MP, concludes today. techUK staff and members joined academics, NGOs and researchers on the steering group for the report.

It is a thoughtful and objective contribution to the debate. Rather than taking a cheapshot aim at data centres or smartphones, as we have seen in the past, the report takes a systems view and identifies areas where significant energy savings could be reaped with the right data, information, incentives and leadership.

The report acknowledges the vital role of new digital technologies in helping to combat climate change, as indeed techUK did last year, citing opportunities in transport, urban planning, industry and the energy system itself. It has been estimated that ICT solutions have the potential to enable a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of up to 15.3% by 2030.

But it flags some important issues. While current estimates suggest ICT accounts for 3.6% of global energy use and 1.4% of global carbon emissions. But these are just estimates. And they vary. And actual measurements and data on energy use are limited.

Furthermore, there remains a lot of uncertainty about the future, particularly beyond the next five years, specifically regarding which technologies will take off and the extent that industry can continue to balance rising demand with energy efficiency measures.

The report recommends that government should commit to collating available data on energy consumption in the sector, identifying gaps and measuring the energy use that is still unknown. Only with the right expertise and correct data can government consider a whole systems approach to identifying the life cycle energy consumption and carbon emissions of the sector, the report says.

Furthermore, that emissions related to the sector are not confined to national boundaries. It argues that the UK must continue to work with the International Energy Agency and the G20 to drive a global discussion and action on this issue.

In the meantime, government can play a leadership role as it moves to digital by default. The report suggests that the Digital Service Standards for digital public services should include a criterion for energy efficiency by design.

At techUK, as well as continuing to work to highlight the carbon abatement and energy efficiency opportunities of digital technologies, we look forward to making a substantive contribution to ongoing work to understand the carbon impact of the internet.

At the moment we only have part of the picture: for instance the UK is the first country to collect and publish robust data on the aggregate energy consumption of its commercial data centre sector but there is a lot of work to do before we can confidently provide figures for the activity that remains in-house. The pattern of knowledge is similar across the wider ICT sector, so we will continue to work with other stakeholders to fill in the gaps.


Read the report


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