Turning up the heat on a zero-carbon ICT sector

The summer 2018 heatwave, with wildfires ranging from Greece in southern Europe to the Nordic countries, made climate change feel very real. Against this background, the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco brought together thousands of activists alongside representatives of cities, regions, federal states and businesses. Many have already engaged in voluntary initiatives to contribute to lower CO2 emission. With the upcoming United Nations COP24 climate summit in Katowice setting rules for implementing the Paris Agreement, there is certainly momentum for net-zero - even if not one EU country is performing sufficiently to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.  

Achieving the net zero objective by 2050 obviously requires a contribution from all sectors and takes in multiple issues, from the behavioral change of individuals and shifting to renewable energy production to deep retrofits of buildings, phasing out fossil fuels, enhancing the circular economy with longer-lived assets, dietary changes, carbon capture and storage, and so on. It’s a long list.  

While it can be extremely difficult to get people to change their behavior, industry - which accounts for 40% of carbon emissions - can make a significant contribution. In particular, tech businesses are well placed to trigger measurable change in their value chains and with consumers. And many companies are already making change happen, most visibly in energy efficiency: despite exponential increases in data volumes, the energy consumption of data centres, communication networks and devices is decreasing. The sourcing of renewables is another focus: 150-plus leading corporate players worldwide having committed to a 100% renewable target (RE100). 

At the same time, decarbonisation efforts need to trickle down and be embraced by medium and smaller sized companies, the vast majority of European businesses, and who can drive demand for renewables. Some big players have started moving in this direction, supporting the decarbonisation of their direct suppliers. The RE-source platform, a European alliance representing clean energy buyers and suppliers for corporate renewable energy sourcing, has been created to connect buyers and sellers.  

And of course, by embracing ‘circular economy’ practices like repair and refurbishment, companies really contribute to decarbonising their operations on the way to a zero emission economy. This entails new business models so less materials are used for products and fewer products are sold, they are ‘dematerialised’, have longer lifetimes (even several lives), are leased, bought back, shared or become a service. At its eventual end-of-life, a product is recycled and the secondary raw materials used for new products. This is already happening; many IT products contain already-recycled plastics, and remanufacturing or repair is a longstanding practice for professional equipment, in some cases achieving a reuse rate of 85% or more for data storage and servers.  

The key is that a product remains an asset to be recovered at the end of its first life. Of course, the situation becomes more complicated when consumers are involved. Nonetheless, practices to retract consumer devices exist, with cable TV and telecom operators requiring customers to return their Complex Set Top Boxes and Internet routers at the end of a contract, or offering mobile phone trade-ins at physical shops or online platforms. Right now, only a single-digit percentage figure are returned this way. But it’s a start: ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’. 

Climate change is no longer a question of if but when the impacts are felt by consumers and businesses. And those impacts are happening. We need concerted action, with informed co-operation between individuals, companies, government and policymakers. And there is hope: these issues are being discussed, and many encouraging initiatives are under way. As these examples in the ICT sector demonstrate, there are great opportunities for change. We need to work even harder to accelerate the turnaround, creating new business models and processes for a sustainable economy working towards a net zero target.

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