At the same time, "smart" technologies that help save energy or enable better use of power grids could also help reduce global CO2 emissions by as much as 15% by 2020, according to the study, which was carried out by independent consultants McKinsey for the Global eSustainability Initiative (GeSI), an industry group, and the Climate Group, an NGO.
The report, published on 19 June, could provide ammunition for the European Commission, which announced a range of measures earlier this year to increase the use of ICT to fight climate change and reduce energy waste. "ICTs are everywhere, but they are not yet used enough to tackle climate change issues," said Information Society Commissioner Viviane Reding while announcing the plans, which will be unveiled over the course of the year (EurActiv 22/02/08).
But unless measures are taken, the industry's impact on the climate is forecast to grow rather than diminish. "To help, rather than hinder, the fight against climate change, the ICT sector must manage its own growing impact and continue to reduce emissions from data centres, telecommunications networks and the manufacture and use of its products," says the report.
This is despite improvements in the energy efficiency of PCs and other products, which the report says will be wiped out by "increased technology uptake in India, China and rest of the world".
The number of PCs worldwide has surpassed one billion units, according to Gartner, a research and consulting firm. "At that pace, it will surpass two billion units by early 2014," the firm said on 23 June, creating problems in terms of waste disposal and energy use.
ICT: the problem or the solution?
Industry giants such as HP, Intel and Sun Microsystems are queuing up to tout their green credentials, saying they can help reduce industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. The report estimates the potential to reduce emissions via ICT to be five times the industry's own carbon footprint, or 15% of global CO2 emissions by 2020.
But it also says little is to be expected from virtual technologies such as teleworking, video-conferencing and e-commerce, which it was believed could help reduce the need for freight or to travel. Although these are increasingly commonplace, the report notes that the "dematerialisation" of the economy "is only one part (6%) of the estimated low carbon benefits the ICT sector can deliver".
The report identifies four major areas where ICT could be more systematically applied:
- Industry motors and industrial automation (0.97 GtCO2e in 2020, worth €68 billion);
- Logistics (1.52 GtCO2e, with energy savings worth €208 billion);
- Buildings (1.68 GtCO2e, worth €216 billion), and;
- Grid technologies (2.03 GtCO2e, worth €79 billion).
It also recommends rethinking our energy consumption in the way we live, work and play in a low-carbon world. New business models that drive low carbon alternatives can be developed across all sectors of the economy, according to the report.