Guiding climate change and energy policy

Going back at least as far as the California ‘energy crisis’ of the early 2000s, analysts have raised concerns about the growing energy consumption and climate footprint of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry. Although we now know the role played by Enron and market manipulation, at the time there were claims that data centers, which provide the computational backbone of the Internet and are the unseen workhorses of the global economy, were the culprit. One report even claimed that the Internet would consume half of all US electricity by 2020. A few lonely voices, including Intel, were pointing to the role that ICT and the Internet could play in improving the economic productivity and energy efficiency of the US economy, but the focus of most discussion was on ICT as part of the problem.

As consumers of energy while in use, ICT devices are part of society’s overall climate footprint, but how large is the contribution? Earlier this year my colleague Lorie Wigle posted a blog titled “Reducing Global Emissions through ICT” pointing to a recent analysis by Gartner which put the entire ICT industry’s share of global carbon emissions at 2 percent. Analysts forecast that this share will grow as the technology penetration increases in the future, particularly in emerging markets. So is the best answer for the environment to have fewer ICT devices? No. We want to have better (more efficient) devices (Another interesting blog on Intel’s products and energy-savings here), but not fewer. Here is why…

The focus of attention is shifting to the role of ICT as part of the solution to our energy and climate challenges; how it can play in helping to reduce the other 98 percent of the footprint. Recent studies are now showing that ICT can have a net positive benefit: up to 15% reduction of the ‘business as usual’ levels of global carbon emissions by 2020.

These achievements won’t happen on their own – realizing the significant solutions potential of ICT will depend on the implementation of good public policies, including:

– Creating a National Strategy to prioritize the ways ICT can contribute to energy and climate solutions

– “Decoupling” policies that allow utilities to earn as much or more money from helping their customers conserve energy as they do from selling more energy

– Stronger building codes that drive investment in better energy management technology

– Government leading by example in their own operations as the largest owner/leaser of building space, largest purchaser of ICT equipment, and largest employer

– Grants and other incentives for “green infrastructure” investments in the Smart Grid as well as recharging locations for plug-in hybrid vehicles

So the challenge becomes educating governments and policy makers. Intel has joined with other technology companies including Dell, HP, EMC and Verizon to form the Digital Energy Solutions Campaign (DESC). DESC will take on the challenge of educating policy makers to promote the role of ICT as part of the solution to our energy and climate challenges. The Technology CEO Council played a key role in the formation of DESC and several non-governmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Climate Group, and the Alliance to Save Energy have affiliated with DESC.

DESC will pursue these and other policies through direct advocacy with government leaders, as well as through public education, workshops, and targeted research. While the initial focus of DESC is in the US, efforts already are underway to establish a presence for DESC in Beijing, China and Delhi, India, where good public policies could enable even more significant ICT-driven energy and climate solutions.