Sustainability has been one of the most important themes discussed in corporate boardrooms worldwide. While previous decades have witnessed environmental movements, the current wave of sustainability consciousness is unprecedented. Each headline grabbing event reinforces public opinion that companies must become more sustainable. Sustainability is being reported in annual reports and indoctrinated into corporate strategy.

Over the coming decade, sustainability will further transform the way that business is conducted and extend across the supply chain. Companies that take this theme seriously now will be better placed to succeed.

Transforming from within

The information and communications technology (ICT) sector, like many others, is one sector that has challenges. A European Commission funded research project calculated that five billion downloads and streams from the 2017 song Despacito, consumes as much electricity as several African countries in a single year.

Other research projects that technologies make up 4 per cent of Greenhouse gases which could double by 2025. Looking into the sector some estimates show edge devices (e.g., mobile phones, wearables, and connected peripherals) make up between 35 to 41 per cent of global ICT energy consumption. On the surface, there are some credible statistics to show that ICT generates ‘too much’ emission. But metrics alone do not show the big picture.

The ICT sector has been transforming from within and allows other sectors to better prepare to meet their green objectives. Many areas like data centre energy consumption stabilized while new constructions accelerated with cloud adoption over the years. Technology is also enabling cities, commercial buildings, construction, and major industries like manufacturing become a lot Greener. The events in the past two years seems to also be creating a multiplier effect in raising awareness of technology in its role in influencing social progress and giving us the tools to measure governance and compliance.

Sustainability – development goals

Many segments within ICT openly acknowledge the need to decarbonize. Back in 2016, the mobile sector, through the GSMA, became among the first industry verticals to commit to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The group is also working with its members to achieve ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050. Some other examples include:

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  • Earlier this month, BT just set its zero-emission goal forward by a decade to 2030. Colt Technology Services also set a similar 2030 target.
  • Vodafone uses renewable energy today to power its entire European network since July.
  • Deutsche Telekom publishes one of the most comprehensive and transparent metric-based Environment and Social Governance (ESG) framework known in the industry.
  • China Mobile, for example, is decarbonizing its own energy grid with 5G.
  • AT&T plans to increase carbon savings 10-times its own operations footprint by 2025.
  • Web 2.0 companies – although owners of the world’s largest data centres and global private networks – are shifting to sustainability and net-zero commitment openly and publicly.

Digital double counting

Counting ICT emissions, alone, does not tell the full story.  Research also shows that ICT industry is enabling many other sectors to reduce their carbon footprint. The World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, finds, by 2030, ICT technology will help reduce industrial emissions by 12.1 billion tons, nearly 10 times the amount emitted by the ICT industry.

Some of these trends were discussed recently at Huawei Connect by Chairman, Eric Xu. (These trends are corroborated by other sources). Material from WEF (with contributions from tech vendors and research institutes) show a path of how ‘digital technology’ can reduce global carbon emissions by 15%. Connectivity is a key enabler helping many industries achieve their sustainability goals. Some of the major high-impact innovations, largely driven by IoT, include:

  • Smart Buildings: The digitization of energy management systems is making dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. Sensor and data-driven technology is helping to predict, measure and monitor real-time energy performance, adjust on the fly, to align with current requirements, such as present occupancy levels. Residential and commercial buildings account for one-third of global energy demand. There are many other improvements in cooling technology that is reducing costs and carbon footprint, especially in data centres.
  • Industry 4.0: The integration of ICT across manufacturing is driving energy efficiency, productivity, and cost-reductions. This includes the reduction of unplanned downtime with predictive maintenance, reducing waste and number of defective products. The extensive use of sensors is credited for its ability to better monitor environment (e.g., noise, water, air, land) for compliance. Contactless processes which are important in current times for the environment as well as public health.
  • Smart Cities: Cities are 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, yet now home to half of the world’s population. They consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy and emit 80 per cent of carbon emissions. Over 150 cities now have a smart city strategy. ICT is embedded in each initiative. IoT, for example, is being widely deployed in everything from IoT-enabled smart lighting to lower the carbon footprint, to other ways to reduce traffic and road congestion. The consequences for not having a smart city strategy (e.g., crime, pollution, social inequalities) only compound the current environmental problem.

ICT is part of the solution towards sustainability and carbon-neutrality for itself and other industries. It helped with many intangibles, such as improving mental health for some, during difficult times. Many essential services, such as education, healthcare, public services have moved online.

Even the workplace will change forever because of connected technology.  Serendipitously, ICT is showing a higher societal value that could have never been anticipated two years ago, like keeping employees safe at work. There is a multiplier effect happening to support social progress such as capturing, generating, and sharing ‘data’ needed to monitor compliance and inform better decisions as we embrace ESG.