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Digital industry must become greener

The digital industry - from data centres and networks to IoT devices and smartphones - is a significant consumer of electricity and thus generates greenhouse gas emissions, especially where the source of energy is fossil fuels.

According to a 2015 report by the Brussels-based, Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) were responsible for around 2% of global greenhouse emissions, about the same as the aviation sector. A 2019 study, however, by the think tank The Shift Project, puts this share higher and, more importantly, with a rising trend: 3.7% in 2018, up from 2.5% in 2013. In a worst-case scenario outlined in the report, this could reach 8% by 2025, mainly due to exponential video consumption and short-lived digital devices.

Here lies one of the most important challenges ahead of us: digital must become greener. At the same time, we need to make better use of digital technologies for reducing energy, emissions and waste.

Green Digital

As the world becomes more connected, smartphone penetration will increase, Internet access will be faster, and there will be more and more IoT networks. This will trigger more consumption of electricity and raw materials for digital purposes. The industry needs to respond to this and become more energy and resource efficient, and this must become a permanent and verifiable endeavour.

The good news is that the industry is already deploying more energy-efficient processors for data centres and they are now being built in regions that reduce the need for cooling. Electricity for big data centres is also typically generated by non-contaminating solar power or hydrogen.

Huawei is now working on AI solutions which automatically shut down energy-consuming parts of telecoms networks when they are not needed.

5G, meanwhile, only consumes 10% of electricity per bit compared to 4G, thanks to features including better heat dissipation, chip design and algorithms.

The industry can do more, however. Areas for improvement include:

  • Waste management:
    • selecting harmless materials to reduce the environmental impact of waste
    • sing more recycled and secondary materials
    • minimising the use of materials through lightweight design, and
  • Product lifespan:
    • making products easier to disassemble, upgrade and repair
    • avoiding "always on" designs.

Green by Digital

Many studies also refer to digital technologies as a potential contributor to reducing the global carbon footprint. The above-mentioned report by GeSI explores this potential and concludes that digital could save TEN TIMES the CO2 it generates itself.

Greenhouse emissions mainly originate from five activities: energy supply, transport, buildings, agriculture and industry, more or less in this order of magnitude. This is where the focus of Green by Digital should be placed.

For instance, in electricity supply. AI real-time predictions on how much electricity is needed can reduce reliance on polluting stand-by plants. This allows a better balance between demand and supply in the light of the growing number of variable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. Smart meters, meanwhile, generate transparency for users and allow better consumption control. Data collection also helps improve electricity supply planning and the assessment of how many new plants should be built.

In transport, digital solutions help avoid unnecessary travel and stand-still time. But there is much more we can do. Smart parking systems mean we don’t have to drive around looking for free spaces, thus cutting fuel consumption and saving time. Smart pricing and toll systems can control entry to cities. Freight operations can be scheduled intelligently to reduce the number of journeys.

Digital solutions can also be used to reduce energy consumption by buildings by as much as 15%, by taking into account multiple factors such as weather forecasts and building occupancy and employing advanced air conditioning management systems.

DigitALL Talk on Green 5G, 12 July

Digital technologies are not a silver bullet – no single solution will fix climate change - but their potential is substantial and as of today largely under exploited. By looking beyond the boundaries of individual technologies, and breaking down the barriers to their deployment, they can make a crucial difference especially as we enter the era of 5G communications.

“Green 5G” will be the topic of the next DigitALL lunchtime debate on 12 July at Huawei’s Cybersecurity Centre, Rue Guimard 9, 1000 Brussels.