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How IT can help cut carbon emissions

While wrestling with carbon emission abatement in writing an assignment on future renewable energy scenarios as part of my studies, I came across an interesting report from McKinsey & Co about the IT sector’s potential to help to reduce carbon emissions.

Firstly, I accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientific argument that we need to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60% to 85% below today’s emission levels by 2050 in order to hold average global temperature increases below 2°C. It is sobering to realise that even a 2-degree increase holds dire consequences, especially for humanity and ecology here in southern Africa (refer to Part 2 of the Stern Review). Reducing GHG emissions by the proportion required implies truly drastic changes to our energy-use and way of living – but that is another discussion.

Emissions from energy consumption directly by information and communications technology (ICT) as well as emissions from their manufacture, transport and disposal already amount to a very significant 2% of total global GHG emissions. That is equivalent to emissions from the global aviation sector.

ICT is a rapidly growing sector as demand for communications, storage and computation is almost insatiable. By 2020, ICT emissions will grow to 3% of global emissions even with improvements in the energy efficiency of equipment and data centres!

McKinsey’s argument is that ICT is an enabler for emission abatement in other sectors. Their research indicates that ICT has the potential to enable the abatement of 5 times more metric tons of GHG than it is responsible for by 2020. Nice – but how?

McKinsey calculated potential , ICT-enabled abatement in the following sectors:

  • Manufacturing sector – using smart controls ICT can enable better energy efficiency of electric motors, especially in the world’s factory – China (9% of abatement)
  • Power sector – smart grids can match electricity demand to supply dynamically, reduce transmission losses and better integrate renewable energy systems (28% of abatement)
  • Transportation sector – smart transportation systems can optimise truck logistics to minimise fuel consumption and truck loads (21% of abatement)
  • Building sector – smart buildings can monitor and dynamically adjust lighting, cooling/heating and ventilation systems to minimise electricity consumption (23% of abatement)
  • “Dematerialised” goods, processes and services through telecommuting, telework, video conferencing, webinars, internet shopping, electronic content instead of paper, etc. (7% of abatement).

On campus, smart regulation and metering of electricity consumption, smart buildings and dematerialisation of processes are all practical interventions. Initiatives are underway for extensive metering of consumption and automated control, and webinar and video conferencing tools are available but need to be promoted more aggressively. And as we have noted in previous posts, the conversion of learning materials into mountains of paper is a cause for concern.

It bears mentioning that in South Africa where most of our electricity generation (94%) is carbon intensive because we burn coal, the proportional potential for abatement in manufacturing, mining (mine gear driven by electric motors), buildings and power supply, is far higher.

Reference:

Boccaletti, G., Löffler, M. & Oppenheim, J.M. 2008. How IT can cut carbon emissions. The McKinsey Quarterly. October.

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