Photo-illustration: John Lamb/Corbis
Information and communication technology are power hogs. Computers, printers, servers, mobile devices, and telecommunication networks are not energy efficient. Although improvements have been made, it has not been enough of a priority. And that’s a problem, because projections show that by 2020 the global greenhouse gas emissions from ICT will double from today’s 2 percent to 4 percent.
The largest worldwide emitter is by far the production of electricity, with 30 percent of that power typically generated by fossil fuel sources. And demand for electricity is growing, especially for powering networks. More people than ever are using the Internet and other communication networks; annual growth in traffic doubles every two years. By 2020, 21 billion devices will be connected to the Internet, according to the technology research company Gartner. By 2035, the International Energy Agency projects that total demand for electricity will be almost 70 percent higher than today.
Some energy-efficiency gains for ICT have been achieved by using more renewable energy sources and by cooling data centers more efficiently. But that’s not enough to shrink the sector’s overall carbon footprint. What’s needed is a complete rethinking of how to design, build, and use ICT. That’s the mission of the IEEE Green Information and Communication Technology initiative, launched in January 2015 by the IEEE Future Directions Committee, IEEE’s R&D arm.
Green ICT refers to the design and application of information and communication technology to create environmental benefits. Such practices include improved manufacturing processes for its components and systems and disposal systems that also reduce carbon emissions. The Green ICT initiative calls for the application of green metrics and standards when a project’s research and design concepts are first being developed. The initiative works with IEEE societies and other IEEE initiatives dealing with, for example, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data, and smart cities.
Because its technical committees have been active in green ICT, the IEEE Communications Society manages the initiative. Collaborators include 16 other IEEE societies as well as representatives from organizations including Bell Labs/Alcatel-Lucent (now part of Nokia), British Telecom, Ericsson Research, the University of Arizona, the University of Leeds, and the University of Melbourne.
“With 40 percent annual traffic growth, if we are able to improve the energy efficiency of today’s networks by a factor of 1,000, then in 20 years they would consume the same amount of energy used today,” says Senior Member Jaafar Elmirghani, who co-chairs the initiative along with Senior Member Charles Despins. “Whatever is designed—whether it’s a communication system, a cloud system, a computer system, or if there’s an electron device, photonic device, or an antenna propagation project—it needs to be done with the environment in mind.”
The initiative raises awareness of how to design green and clean technology by providing forums for the exchange of information. It has done so through existing publications, and it plans this year to launch two new ones dedicated to green ICT.
The group has held information sessions at the IEEE International Conference on Communications, IEEE Globecom, and other gatherings, and is in the process of organizing its own events, workshops, and symposia. It is working to expand the library of green ICT–related standards. And there are tutorials in the works to be given at IEEE conferences and made available on the Green ICT website.
“IEEE knows how to do conferences, how to publish journals, and it has a framework for standards,” Elmirghani says. “We are trying to make use of all these capabilities.”
Improving the environment might be noble, but practical concerns are also at work: Electricity is expensive; reducing its use cuts costs. The National Resources Defense Council, the environmental action group, found that U.S. data centers used 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013 and are on track to consume up to 140 billion kWh per year by 2020—equivalent to electricity bills of nearly US $13 billion annually.
“Companies are very aware of these costs,” Elmirghani notes. “That’s why a lot of the green ICT projects are being led by industry.”
The GreenStar Network project, launched in 2010, seeks to encourage cloud-based ICT services using only renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind, and hydroelectricity. The project, an alliance of Canada’s leading IT companies and universities, is led by École de Technologie Supérieure, in Montreal. A summary of that and other projects are on the Green ICT initiative’s website under the technology spotlight tab.
A side benefit of making data centers, wireless networks, and the core networks of telecommunication service providers more energy efficient, known as “greening ICT,” would be its adoption in other industries as well. That is known as “greening by ICT,” Elmirghani says. Sending e-mail rather than postal mail, and using video conferencing instead of flying to attend a meeting, for example, decreases the carbon emissions from postal trucks and airplanes.
Elmirghani cites the decrease in carbon emissions pinpointed in theSMARTer 2030 report issued in June by the Global e-Sustainability initiative. It found greening by ICT could enable a 20 percent reduction of global CO2emissions by 2030, effectively holding ICT emissions at 2015 levels, and that ICT can reduce global CO2 emissions by an amount equal to approximately 10 times its own carbon footprint. The Global e-Sustainability initiative is a collaboration of major ICT companies and a leading source of information, resources, and best practices for achieving integrated social and environmental sustainability through ICT.
The SMARTer report notes that the overall effect of ICT could generate more than $11 trillion in sustainable benefits annually, such as saving more than 300 trillion liters of water and reducing the need for oil by 25 billion barrels. Greening by ICT can benefit society in other ways as well. The report predicts that by 2030, ICT could potentially give 1.6 billion more people access to medical services via telemedicine and provide half a billion with e-learning tools.
“The Green ICT initiative is an ideal opportunity to lead the thinking on what industry and governments should be doing,” Elmirghani says. “It fulfills IEEE’s mission of fostering technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.”
This article appears in the March 2016 print issue as “Environmentally Friendly Information and Communication Technology.”