Energy use in ICT: did the fears expressed a decade ago come to pass?

In 2007, Gartner warned in a widely picked up paper that global carbon emissions from the ICT sector was equal to the aviation sector. It prompted many to express concerns about run-away emissions from the sector.

Ten years hence have these predictions played out? In a paper for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change to feed into its inquiry on climate change and the internet, techUK sets out evidence that shows that despite continued sector growth, the concerns expressed in 2007 have not materialised.

History now reveals a dynamic balance between increasing demand in ICT services (number of devices in use; performance per devices; diversification of applications) and increasing energy efficiency (semiconductor performance; ; the shift from PCs to smartphones and tablets; reductions in standby losses; more efficient power conversion).

Technological developments, eco-design, procurement schemes, industry initiatives and market trends have driven much of the observed improvements in energy efficiency observed to date.

In its 2017 report to Parliament on energy prices and bills, the Committee on Climate Change reported that household energy use has fallen despite increased use and functionality of appliances and devices that require electricity. In Germany annual energy demand by the ICT sector decreased by 15%, 8TWh, between 2010 and 2015 with further reductions expected in the short-term. They expect this trend to continue until 2020 when energy consumption rise slightly from 45TWh to 46TWh in 2025. Sweden, which has the highest data traffic per capita in the world, has seen similar reductions in energy consumption between 2010 and 2015 despite data traffic being five-times higher. Recent analysis shows that the electricity intensity of the data distribution networks halves every couple of years.

Furthermore, evidence that the sector has a key role in helping others to reduce their energy use has become stronger. A recent Accenture Strategy report for BT, for example, showed that the right policy framework could enable technology and ICT to deliver a net 24% reduction in annual UK emissions, which it estimated to be 12 times the carbon footprint of the sector itself, with an associated economic benefit to the UK of £122 billion in 2020. Our recent paper outlined how these savings are being materialised and the future opportunities for the sector to support the decarbonisation of our economy.

That said, techUK recognise that while the sector is helping to drive down emissions, the digital transformation of our economy must be a sustainable one: energy efficiency improvements must continue to be delivered by the sector itself. Read our paper to see some of the latest industry trends and actions underway to improve the sector’s energy efficiency, alongside some of the trends that threaten to derail progress unless “energy efficiency by design” is front and centre of technology deployment alongside with security and privacy.

We welcome feedback on this paper. So if you have any comments or views, please do get in touch.

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