How ICT could lead the world in carbon reduction

I contrast this dismay with the elation many of us in the sustainability community shared when the UK committed to its first carbon budget in 2009.

The Carbon Budget Order made us one of the first countries in the world to have legally binding climate change targets – a 50% reduction of CO2e by 2025 from 1990 levels – with the political commitment to support these ambitions.

Our political leaders have since met at COP21 and the historic Paris agreement marked not only a significant step towards a sustainable future, but a great demonstration of collaboration. BT is already a net positive company, and we’re working to help our customers cut carbon emissions by three times the end-to-end carbon impact of our business by 2020.

The motto of the climate change movement which supported the Paris negotiations -“To change everything, we need everyone” – still stands firm. The recent figures underscore the enormity of the task – we need every tool in the box to set us on course to meet our commitments, and none so more as ICT.

A recent piece of research we conducted with Accenture shows the significant role ICT could have in helping to meet the specific targets set by the fifth and subsequent carbon budgets. Given that these technologies could help deliver a 24% reduction in UK carbon emissions – some 12 times the carbon footprint of the ICT sector itself, it is hard to ignore the opportunity from ICT’s potential.

What we’re talking about here is the equivalent of taking 26 million passenger cars off the road. Put another way, ICT has the equivalent potential to remove the carbon emissions of nearly every car in the UK (all 29.6 million of them).

The pay-off of an ICT uplift extends beyond just tackling the climate change challenge. When we consider the economic benefit from investing in information communication technology, the rewards are vast. Increasing the role of ICT will create £122bn in economic value between now and 2030. These financial benefits are not only in cost savings (£63.5bn), but also from new revenue (£58.5bn) with services such as remote health monitoring, or virtualising services through the cloud.

A word on these two measures. When we consider e-health, research shows it will generate over £1.3bn in space savings, and enhanced health services will be available to 19.9 million people across the UK.

Pioneering examples include the mobile solution used by Humber NHS Foundation Trust which ensures that clinicians have the most up to date information at their fingertips whether in the office, on the go or at a patient’s home. It streamlines the Trust’s existing processes, reducing the need to return to base, saving time, paper and money and allowing more time to be spent on patient care.

Similarly, virtualising services to the cloud increases server utilisation, reducing energy use from everything from surfing holiday sites to e-healthcare provision. In many small businesses, server utilisation rates hover around 5% or 10%. With the cloud, utilisation rates are typically 60% to 70% – shared data centres can employ fewer machines to get an equivalent capacity. According to a CDP report, offsite servers have the potential to prevent 85.7 million metric tons of annual carbon emissions by 2020.

There’s also a windfall carbon dividend to be had from improving the energy efficiency and design of ICT hardware itself. Take broadband routers, now in most households in the UK. We have innovated in the design and production of BT Home Hub, including an intelligent power management system which puts individual functions into power saving mode when not in use, as well as the clever packaging that fits through your letter box, saving delivery travel time and costs.

But these benefits will not be realised without ambitious investment in getting households and businesses online. And the benefits of doing so are clear from our work with businesses up and down the country. The Superfast Cornwall programme which has brought fibre access to 95% of homes and businesses in the region is estimated to save 581,146 tonnes of CO2e by 2020.

The need is now and the opportunity is present. ICT has a significant role to play and is already realising economic benefits and reducing carbon in the UK. If we get it right, the reward is sizeable and we have an opportunity for the UK to lead the world in carbon reduction innovation.

Niall Dunne is the chief sustainability officer of BT Group

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