We need a level playing field to measure carbon emissions from ICTUnited Kingdom
Many commentators have pointed to the crucial role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in combating climate change. But what exactly is the impact of these technologies - both in the CO2 they generate themselves, and in the significant and widespread reductions they can accomplish generally? Without transparent and consistent data, governments and industry are less likely to invest in the powerful tool of ICT to help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. They need to see the numbers. They need to know that they are operating on a "level playing field".
What is required are standardised methodologies for measuring the emissions caused by ICT throughout their lifecycle (from manufacturing, through deployment to eventual disposal), as well as their positive effects in, for instance, cutting energy requirements. Producing such methodologies has been the topic of studies by international bodies, notably the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations, which in recent years has placed a special focus on the area of ICT and climate change.
Last month, a Study Group of ITU's Standardization Sector began the approval process of a new standard (known as "ITU-T L.1400") that sets out a framework and principles for evaluating the environmental effects of ICT, and outlines methodologies that are being developed to assess these impacts in terms of goods, networks and services, as well as the use of ICT in businesses and other organizations, cities, and even countries as a whole.
In future, it should also be possible to make valuable comparisons, on an agreed and transparent basis, among sources of ICT-related emissions across the globe. For example, a factory in Croatia could be measured against similar premises in China or Canada. The standard also provides examples of how ICT can be used to reduce stress on the environment. Thus, a factory owner could look at the current impact of his operations, and the potential CO2 savings that could be made through ICT.
The Study Group is made up of leading experts from governments and industry around the world and the proposed new standard is now open for comment by the entire ITU membership from the public and private sectors. It is expected to be published in final form in early 2011. The group collaborates closely with other relevant organizations, including UNFCCC, ISO, IEC, and IEEE, as well as the GeSI (the Global e-Sustainability Initiative). And under the umbrella of ITU-T L.1400, further, more detailed standards on specific areas are expected to be provided for public use from 2012. The results will also be fed into work on the Clean Development Mechanism defined in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
In addition to helping particular projects to improve their record on mitigating climate change, the methodologies that are envisaged will be invaluable in the wider arena. Take carbon trading, for example, as one way of limiting greenhouse-gas emissions. Like any other type of trade, it can only take place effectively if there is a trusted "currency". Methodologies already exist for measuring emissions (or corrective effects) in many fields — but not yet for ICT. With this new standard (a first for ITU), governments, industries and all types of organization can begin to measure accurately their progress in reducing carbon footprints through ICT, and rate their performance fairly alongside others. Methodology matters.
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