Lancaster University - Transforming Tomorrow

Transforming Tomorrow 16 The growing impact of ICT Technology can provide solutions to some climate and sustainability challenges, but it also creates issues of its own. Professor Adrian Friday explains how research from Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications is addressing issues of ICT’s impact on the global emissions, and how footprints might be reduced. We are in a climate crisis, and the technology sector unquestionably contributes. The global scale and growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) means the sector now produces 2-4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, approximately equal to global air travel. This is estimated to rise. Yet the potential impacts of digital technology on the planet and society are only starting to be recognised. The future is assumed to continue to be digitally mediated. Cloud computing, data centres, online and social media, digital currencies, Internet of Things (IoT), and machine learning are all implicit in business and societal visions of the future. Even decarbonisation roadmaps and achieving our national and global climate change ambitions are predicated on ICT and technological solutions. In our recent work, we consider experts’ best estimates of ICT’s impacts and discuss the driving narratives embedded in these assessments. We find that considerable variations exist due to where boundaries are drawn around emerging technologies and consideration of all emissions scopes (1, 2 and 3). Important gains in efficiency are of course evident, especially in data centres which are increasing in size and scale, leading to significant gains in performance for relatively modest growth in energy demand. But the focus on direct energy efficiency and renewables ignores impacts on other environment resources, especially the hardware and supply chain. There is little convincing evidence that ICT innovations, such as online video conferencing, are leading to reductions in flying or decarbonising other sectors. Rather, growing efficiency without caps to limit overall emissions can even lead to increased emissions through well-known but under-studied rebound effects. This calls for more focus on accountability of ICT's impacts, and a new capability for global management, and limits to ICT’s emissions. Our work has informed a report by Royal Society; 11 panels and invited talks, including at Research Councils UK’s Engineering Net Zero Showcase, Lancashire Digital Tech Talks, TalkTalk’s Making Sense of Sustainability for SMEs, the ITU-T standards CWG-Internet consultation, he UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). In future work, we are focusing on the design methodologies and processes for IT companies to develop more sustainable software, as well as exploring specific growth technologies’ footprints, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and IoT. We are also interested in collecting evidence and best practice of innovative approaches for reducing ICTs resource footprint, and of ICTs’ utility in reducing societal and business energy and greenhouse gas impacts, to share and accelerate progress towards addressing climate change. If you would like to find out more about this work, contact Professor Adrian Friday,