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The ICT sector and its environmental impact: towards a greener society

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues for industries, but could the ICT sector be part of the solution rather than a problem?
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Written by
Marina Alonso
Published on
November 10, 2021
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To claim global warming is a hoax would be as foolish as saying that the Earth is flat. The previously dormant volcano of Cumbre Vieja, La Palma (Spain), that erupted last September, could well be a prelude of a potential climate catastrophe. If governments, industries, and individuals do not take responsibility and work on measures to slow down and stop the environmental issue things could get much worse. But how?

The year 2020 was of extraordinary relevance in human history and valuable lessons were learnt. When travelling was banned and big cities like Sydney, New York or Madrid were freed from smog, our society suddenly witnessed “the bright side” of the Covid-19 pandemic: global warming was slowing down.  

Climate change has been for the last decades the most pressing issue for industries, which obviously does not exclude telecommunications service providers. Satec and Alvatross are not oblivious to the problem. We try to stay as sustainable as possible, seeking to benefit the entire society and its environment by complying with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations.

The SDG is a globally shared plan which started in 2015 to lay the foundations for ending extreme poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet by 2030. Satec and Alvatross follow these guidelines to take climate action, by promoting, digitalisation and connectivity as some key features for dealing with the environmental issue.  

The problem

Studies show that the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of telcos represent around 2% to 3% of the global CO2 emissions. The forecast of global data traffic growing over 50% per year does not seem to predict a reduction but rather an increase in emissions. Thus, the sector’s contribution to the problem will increase unless renewable energy and energy efficiency investments can offset the consequences.

The ICT industry has direct and indirect effects on the environment.

  • Direct consequences derive from the wide use and implementation of services. These GHG emissions result from the resources to power and cool network equipment and data centres, and the raw materials used to build our modern devices (plastic, metal, silicon, tin, nickel…).
  • The indirect consequences come from the energy used to power our devices, fixed and mobile telecommunications. Data centres, despite their efficiency, represent a huge electricity demand that keeps exponentially growing year after year. Moreover, ICT infrastructures require extensive network batteries, flywheels, backup generators, and other features that also consume great amounts of energy.  

The solution

We have mentioned that at the peak of the pandemic, pollution levels all over the world decreased. During the lockdown period that we all experienced just a year ago, Internet usage skyrocketed. It was so remarkably high that streaming platforms were forced to reduce the quality of their videos to manage such a high volume of traffic. Then, Can the ICT sector benefit the environment? Are the emission levels significant enough if compared to other industries?

The answer is simple, any emission level is relevant and significant to consider in the present situation. Although, it is also true that technology has proven to be a necessary ally in driving a more sustainable market. In the past 19 months, the ICT sector has become the backbone of society, allowing people to stay connected throughout the world. Telecommunications companies have indirectly bridged an important gap for other industries. And they have demonstrated the positive implications they may have on the environment and the society.  

The goal of the ICT sector is to reduce emissions of polluting materials of mobile, fixed telephony and data centres to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. Its mission is to limit the increase of global warming to 1.5ºC, below 2ºC, so we can try to minimise the risks and adverse effects of climate change. This means that CSPs are not only facing challenges regarding technological developments. They also seek to integrate, as part of their business strategy, an environmental plan to support and reach these goals.  

ICT companies are aware of the problem and keep trying to improve. Over the last years, we have seen different articles and news about the increasing trends for CSPs to prioritise sustainability. The Spanish telecom company MásMóvil was recently proud to announce they had finally reached zero net carbon emissions; just over a month ago, Vantage Towers announced that the company had managed to supply its entire infrastructure exclusively with renewable energies. These are just two examples of how the industry is progressing to build a greener society. And they also illustrate the role that mobile technology plays in society nowadays.  

As mentioned above, Satec and Alvatross try to accomplish their environmental goals by promoting digitalisation, cloud migration, and virtualisation. We also support working remotely as a smart solution to contribute to the environment and make our employees’ lives easier. From our perspective, the new digital revolution is more than just a smart solution to safely store information that can be accessed from any point at any time. It also seems to have another more important role for the world which is to reduce the footprint of companies.  

Apart from the role played by companies, different government regulations and opting for a smart living and working remotely (when possible) could also have great impact. The use of smartphones, mobile banking, video calling, or remote working translates into less unnecessary physical travel. Consequently, this has proven to have positive effects on reducing global carbon emissions.

Squeme of Sustainable solutions to promote digitalisation through energy efficiency, remote work, smart living and cloud migration

You may also like: The ever-growing value of Open APIs for CSPs.

What's next?

The world has been suffering an environmental crisis where Telcos and the entire ICT sector has been involved. Besides its pollutant carbon emissions, the industry is ready to take the next step towards building a greener society, harnessing the true potential of the new technology while developing smarter and more sustainable technology.  

To realise technology’s full potential, governments, businesses, and users need to explore and seize the opportunities offered by the new ways of living in the technological revolution. The question now is how to solve the exponentially rising electricity demands while keeping low carbon emissions.  

From what we have seen so far, it looks like CSPs are moving in the right direction. Relevant technological advances promoted by digitalisation could potentially lead to lower carbon emissions. But we cannot forget the emergency is real and we need to keep making quick decisions to tackle it.

A new world of smart devices calls for smart solutions, and we have the right skills and mentality to make it possible.

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