Jens Schippl / Nora Weinberger
Assessing the potential of ICT to increase
Brüssel: European Parliament 2009
In order to combat climate change the EU has set the aim of a 20% reduction of CO2 emissions until 2020. This aim only seems achievable if a reduction in energy consumption supported by energy efficient technologies takes place. In principle, many innovative technologies are strongly linked with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Regarding the impact of ICT on climate change two different aspects can be distinguished. On the one hand, ICT is discussed as a technology that enables an increase in energy efficiency, a reduction of energy consumption, as well as a reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in general. On the other hand, ICT have become a significant energy consumer themselves.
The overall contribution of ICT (as energy consumer) to climate change is estimated to be around 2%. However, future growth rates in ICT are expected to be impressive, especially in the emerging countries, so the potential as well as the need for further savings will also increase. Recently, the heavily growing amount of energy consumption induced by ICT has attracted a lot of attention. The terms "Green computing" or "green ICT", both referring to environmentally sustainable computing or ICT, is mentioned quite often in newspapers as well as in technical reports and scientific journals. Taking up these discussions, this report on the potential of ICT to increase energy efficiency and fight climate change illustrates GHG saving potentials in PCs and Server farms. Further, a focus is put on new and promising concepts such as virtualisation and “cloud computing”. Reasons for this selection are the fast global growth rates in PCs, server farms as well as the strong global tendency to use more and more the Internet and Internet- based applications.
ICT as an enabling technology for the reduction of GHG emissions is of even more complex nature, many relevant linkages are more implicit. This report illustrates that ICT is a crucial enabling technology for the mitigation of climate change. Various ICT-applications in different sectors enable energy savings, increased energy efficiency and a reduction of GHG emissions. In four selected areas, the relevance of ICT for the reduction of GHG emissions was elaborated in more detail:
For all of the four selected areas significant technological progress and organisational innovations with strong relation to ICT are expected to further tap energy saving potentials in the next decades. Many advanced approaches and visions are discussed:
Regarding several applications, for example in smart homes or in intelligent transport, it is likely that further penetration of daily routines by ICT, a trend that is also named "ubiquitous computing", will pave the way for more interest in, acceptance of and willingness to pay for ICT-based solutions.
It is shown in the report that the saving potentials related to ICT as enabling technology in these four key-areas is by far larger than the approx. 2% stemming from ICT as an energy consumer. For example, the Climate Group calculates in the SMART 2020 report, that, in total, ICT could deliver 7.8 Gt CO2e  emission savings in 2020, which represents 15% of global GHG emissions in 2020 (based on a BAU estimation; The Climate Group 2008, 9). Still, it can be stated that there is a broad uncertainty on the reliability of data since ICT are in general embedded in complex systems which makes it difficult to isolate their effect. However, in this project many studies have been analysed and discussed with experts. On this basis it can be concluded, that the energy consumption of ICT is relatively small compared to the potential of ICT as an enabling technology. The net effect of ICT on climate change is clearly positive. Support of ICT as well as its consequent implementation and development is essential for combating climate change. ICT is indispensable for decoupling economic growth from GHG emissions. Because of the impressive expected growth rates in ICT applications, especially in emerging countries, it is important to focus as well on tapping the full potential for the reduction of energy consumption induced by ICT. This would even improve the clearly positive net balance of ICT on Climate Change.