Nº 9 2011 > News
New ITU standards for a greener economy
Ahmed Zeddam, Chairman, ITU-T Study Group 5
Keith Dickerson, Chairman, Working Party 3, ITU-T Study Group 5
Jean-Manuel Canet, Rapporteur, Question 18, ITU-T Study Group 5
The world economy hinges on the use of information and communication technologies (ICT), so these technologies are integral to any attempt to address environmental concerns through public policy or economic activity. ICT can lead industry down a more eco-friendly path by reducing carbon emissions from high energy-consuming sectors, such as energy generation and distribution, waste disposal, building construction and transport.
ITU has been actively engaged in the development of recommendations on ICT and the environment. Study Group 5 of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU–T), the lead study group on the environment and climate change, has been investigating ways to green the ICT sector through standards and to help other sectors improve their resource efficiency. Following much hard work over the past two years, the group issued 12 new recommendations at its recent meeting in Seoul, Republic of Korea, the most ever agreed during a single meeting of the group.
Standardized methodologies to assess the environmental impact of ICT
One particularly important recommendation agreed in Seoul is ITU–T L.1410 “Methodology for environmental impacts of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) goods, networks and services”). This provides a standardized way of assessing the direct environmental impact of ICT goods, networks and services, as well as their indirect effect on the greenhouse gas emissions of non-ICT sectors. It is based on the life-cycle assessment methodology described in ISO 14040 and ISO 14044 standards.
In the past, the lack of a standard methodology for the ICT sector has been a barrier to communicating ITU’s climate change message. The differences between estimates of the impact of ICT on the environment, arising from the use of different methodologies, have diminished the credibility of the assessments. The new standard methodology will reinforce the role of ICT by providing an accurate and reliable tool for assessing environmental impact. It will generate figures that businesses can use to model future revenues, costs and efficiency gains provided by green ICT; and that governments and regulators can rely on to gauge the benefits in social and economic welfare that green ICT can achieve.
Unlike many products and services sold in the world today, ICT can be a double-edged sword. By consuming energy and natural resources and by creating e‑waste at each stage of the life cycle, ICT adversely affect the environment. Off-setting this, ICT can enable vast efficiencies in personal lifestyle and in all sectors of the economy by providing digital solutions that improve energy efficiency, in particular through inventory management and business efficiency by reducing movement and transport. There are evident energy savings, for example, in e‑commerce (where digital information replaces the display of physical products), as well as in teleworking and videoconferencing (where the need to travel is minimized).
Recommendation ITU–T L.1410 addresses the so-called first- and second-order impacts of ICT on the environment. In the context of the recommendation, first-order effects are created by the physical existence of ICT, whereas second-order effects are created by the use and application of ICT. The second-order effects include environmental load reduction — which can be either actual or potential. For example, travel substitution can mean actual reduced transport by car (because the car does not run) or a potential reduction in public transport (because the plane, train, tram or bus may still be running). Other examples of second-order effects include transport optimization, working environment changes and use of environmental control systems, as well as e‑business and e‑government.
The recommendation will provide a better understanding of the overall environmental impact of ICT, and will give manufacturers and service providers a reliable tool to use to assess and improve their environmental impact.
Another important recommendation agreed in Seoul is ITU–T L.1420 “Methodology for energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions impact assessment of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in organizations”. This standardizes the requirements that an organization should comply with when assessing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Recommendation ITU–T L.1420 will allow ICT sector organizations to assess their energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (generated over a defined period of time) on the basis of ISO 14064-1 and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. It will also allow non-ICT organizations to assess the impact from their ICT-related activities.
Recommendations ITU–T L.1410 and L.1420 are part of a series of new ITU–T Recommendations that establish a set of globally recognized methodologies to assess the environmental impact of ICT and for which the rationale is clearly described in Recommendation ITU–T L.1400 “Overview and general principles” released in February 2011.
Recycling rare metals in ICT products
Highlighted at the ITU Green Standards Week in Rome, 5–9 September 2011, was the pressing need to address mounting e‑waste concerns. The range of ICT products available to consumers continues to expand, and the consumption of these products is increasing rapidly. This has translated into growing volumes of e‑waste, much of which consists of products retired long before the end of their useful lives.
Following the success of its recent revision of Recommendation ITU–T L.1000 “Universal power adapter and charger solution for mobile terminals and other hand-held ICT devices”, Study Group 5 identified the recycling of ICT rare metal components as an area demanding attention, and has responded with the new Recommendation ITU–T L.1100 detailing the procedures to be employed when recycling these metals. The recommendation outlines key considerations in all phases of the recycling process, and provides guidelines as to how organizations may fairly and transparently report on rare metal recycling.
Rare metals are essential to the high-end functionality of ICT products, and the ICT industry has reached the point where it is not possible to omit these metals from product design. A mobile phone contains no less than 20 rare metals, and the need to recycle these metals is clear — a tonne of gold ore yields just 5 grammes of gold, whereas a tonne of used mobile phones yields a staggering 400 grammes.
It is well known that natural stocks of some semiconductor-compounds, such as copper, indium, gallium, selenide, cadmium and tellurium will be depleted in the near future. The recycling of these metals is important from an environmental perspective, but it is their rarity and consequent value that provides ample economic incentives for such recycling. This is one of the rare cases where environmental and economic concerns are aligned precisely, and the recycling of rare metals will surely find support in all economic sectors.
Greening data centres
Data centres are among the fastest growing parts of the ICT industry, so it is essential to reduce the energy they consume and the amount of greenhouse gases they emit. Recommendation ITU–T L.1300, also agreed in Seoul, contains “Best Practices for Green Data Centers”. The recommendation states that reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions should be considered in the design and construction of data centres, and that constant monitoring will be required to consistently manage and improve energy consumption while the data centre is in operation.
Best practices are outlined for the use, management and planning of data centres, for cooling and power equipment, for the optimum design of data centre buildings, and for the monitoring of data centres after construction. For example, applying best practice to cooling could reduce the energy consumption of a typical data centre by more than 50 per cent.
The path towards green economies
The recent recommendations produced by ITU–T Study Group 5 are the starting blocks from which the ICT industry can launch its bid to become a frontrunner in our society’s marathon battle with climate change. The set of standardized methodologies to assess the environmental impact of ICT will enable ITU and its membership to voice their message clearly, accurately and consistently; bringing credibility to the claim that ICT can aid in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The guidelines on rare metals recycling represent a clear commitment by the ICT sector to reduce its own carbon footprint. These developments are encouraging, whether viewed from the political, economic, environmental or social perspective.
The future of ITU’s commitment to the environment is bright, especially with a foundation as strong as that provided by ITU–T Study Group 5. ITU will continue to appeal to the ICT industry, policy-makers and regulators to include ICT in measures to combat climate change. ICT should be an essential part of environmental policy design, rather than being addressed as an afterthought.
This is the message that ITU will take to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP‑17) in Durban (28 November to 9 December 2011), a message maintaining that to reduce the load on the environment caused by increasing economic activity requires a greener, smarter and more efficient society — one that ICT will be instrumental in creating.
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