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Sustainability in the Digital Sphere: How green is ICT?

Information and Communication Technology’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is believed to have stood at between 1.8-2.8% in 2020. However, despite huge projected sector growth, the sector still can stabilise or even reduce its carbon footprint. To do so, the world needs to reach net-zero emissions by revamping current climate policies and adopting long-term mitigation strategies to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals.

The ICT carbon footprint can be approximated as an even distribution between the following three categories: data centres, telecommunications networks, and digital devices, which at the same time have the highest sustainability potential for enabling other business models and having direct impact upon entire markets.

  • First, power-hungry data centres are being built on commitments to innovative green and renewable strategies due to massive energy consumptions, discarding obsolete systems and taking advantage of newer, energy-efficient technologies to decrease CO2 emissions.
  • Next, network operators need to rethink their energy consumption, not least of all from a cost perspective, however also with respect to the impact their telecommunication networks have on the environment. This will have a profound effect on the way they plan and deploy their next-generation networks to minimise their carbon footprint (by using renewable energy for 5G and beyond).
  • And finally, with the ever-increasing demand for digital devices, circular economy-oriented programmes and tools become essential to optimise resources and reduce the huge tons of e-waste generated in every corner of the world that translate into GHG emissions.

In this research article, we highlight five areas in which regulators can look to take action to help drive sustainability in ICT, as they can play a key role in ensuring that the digital journey of their country/jurisdiction is undertaken by a responsible and climate-conscious ICT sector. Current policies to reduce, or at least slow down growth in, CO2 and other GHG emissions will have some impact on reducing future warming, but most are still far from the rates of progress required to achieve international targets.