Sustainability from an ICT Perspective

Sustainability from an ICT Perspective

About the blog

The blog discusses Sustainability with a great focus on the environment from an ICT Perspective. It is an open forum for discussion on the topic raising vital issues and how to confront them in order to achieve a sustainable world especially for future generations

ICT-Induced Environmentally-Friendly and Sustainable Development

Climate DeniersPosted by Blog Admin Thu, January 22, 2015 13:07:48

Ullman et al. “fundamentally, [define] computer science [as] is a science of abstraction – creating the right model for thinking about a problem and devising the appropriate mechanizable techniques to solve it.” (Aho & Ullman, 1995) Furthermore, defines ICT as “technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications.” So the scope of the solutions it is expected to offer is explicitly limited within the boundaries of these definitions.

If sustainability were a Nation, then in my opinion, a portrait of The Late Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai would have to appear on its currency. An alumni of the University of Nairobi, she became the first female professor from Eastern and Central Africa in 1971 and was quick to apply and share her knowledge mobilising other women and educating them on the urgency of conserving forests. As marginalised members of her conservative and patriarch African society they otherwise would not have had access to that knowledge had they not have been blessed to have a person of her calibre within their reach.

Despite being the field in which a myriad of jaw‐dropping innovations have been born in the recent decades, many a times I get the feeling that many people still tend to get some unrealistic ambitions over the kinds of problems ICT can offer solutions to. Take for instance at a staff meeting, where a teacher pulled a random joke that “computers seem to be capable of solving most of the world’s problems today, can they also solve our family (conflict, divorce, separation etc.) problems too?”

But there is a drawback. ICT products face no competition in terms of being the only single goods that consume more than half of the periodic table. As we shall see, this poses an alarming threat to the environment especially as they start gearing towards the final and end-use stage of their LCA – Life Cycle Assessment.

Climate deniers are a lobby group who have chosen to refuse to have the finger pointed at human activity on the planet as the answerable culprit to the worrying consequences of the GHG (Greenhouse Gas emissions in GtCO2e - Carbon dioxide emission in GigaTonnes) effect et al. Armed with a conservative, right‐wing ideological mind-set, they are definitely a force to be reckoned with especially considering their significant numbers and financial base.

ICT As a Setback Towards Sustainable Development

The fact that these climate deniers with all their stakes along the financial and political corridors are widespread in Western Countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia (Ward, 2014) the size of their GHG footprint is alarming for them to even dare deviate away from the projected sustainability mind-set/culture that the entire world is in dire need of in times like these. (Seto et al., 2014)

Despite it being clearer than ever that it is actually we humans who are responsible for the massive increase in global temperature in recent times, these deniers still exploit ICT as a medium for spreading their false, misplaced and misleading propaganda to reach out to the masses, confusing them with their wrong and misguided interpretations totally separated from reality. They are indeed a major setback to the tireless efforts that have already been carried out to try and beat the deadlines that have been set for (i.e. 2015 to achieve the Millennium Development Goals). Moreover, they collect funds wired to their banks quickly and swiftly thanks to ICT.

ICT is ever featuring on the headline news as the ultimate solution very attractive to the ear when we would need to solve some of the looming troubles the world is currently faced with. However, Dr Eric Williams of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability at Rochester Institute of Technology argues that "Although the economic and social implications of ICTs are much discussed and analysed, the environmental implications receive much less attention." Which gives the revolutionary technology some kind space and/or platform to practise impunity. You find that companies commit some very serious crimes and yet they still manage to get away with it. Such as dumping ICT waste in the developing world. Say in China, India and parts of Africa as some of the examples of countries Dr Williams pointed out to drive his point home. (Williams, 2011)

ICT as a Catalyst Towards Sustainable Development

The Global e-Sustainability Initiative published a report entitled GeSI SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future. As indicated by table 2 of the report, there exist vital change levers that if efficiently applied and implemented in the ICT sector, can bring about significant reduction in the size of the GHG footprint.

[Table 2]

And further as it states on table 4, transportation in the end‐use sector contributed towards the emission of 6.6 GtCO2e in 2008.

[Table 4]

Invoking new efficient methods and overseeing their availability especially in the developing parts of the world may greatly cut these figures down already in the next decade or so. Bolivia as an example have introduced cable cars “ [which are] transform[ing] the lives of commuters between La Paz, Bolivia, and the mountaintop of El Alto, who currently have to zigzag up the slope in horrible traffic.” Increased funding in such projects widely would yield GHG abatement levels.

[Cable cars video]

Moreover, the GeSI SMARTer report still goes on to argue that “ICT‐enabled solutions offer the potential to reduce GHG emissions by 16.5%, create 29.5 million jobs and yield USD 1.9 trillion in savings.” Showing that a vision for a green economy courtesy of ICT is very viable indeed.

Consumption Having a Positive Effect on Sustainability

Our consumption definitely can be sustainable indeed. As a matter of fact, we as consumers have a great impact because our vote of choice for the goods/services we choose to buy and the habits we adopt does actually have an impact on what eventually is produced en-mass. An article the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published revealed that “2 out of 3 Swedes are willing to pay extra amount for ready-made meat, strawberry-jam and dairy products at the expense of having their source clearly indicated.” This sheds a ray of hope on the kind of impact consumers potentially can have on producers.

Moreover, from the moment a group consumers demonstrate that by practically exhibiting the possibility of living comfortable lives without leaving a significant GHG footprint, they may further inspire others to follow suit. President Barack Obama of the United States paid a state visit to Sweden in the summer of 2013. He was full of praise for the efforts the country has made and he wasn’t hesitant to mention the fact that his own country as well as the rest of the world could borrow a leaf from off Sweden’s book.

[Embed video]

“Mindful of the jobs that are supported by trade between our two countries, we discussed ways to partner more, including creating a clean energy partnership that creates jobs and combats climate change effectively. Sweden is obviously an extra‐ordinary leader when it comes to tackling climate change and increasing energy efficiency, developing new technologies and their goal of achieving a carbon‐neutral economy is remarkable and Sweden is well on its way. We deeply respect and admire that, and I think we can learn from it.” As the old English saying goes, “one man walketh, and a million men stalketh.”

Another example, Lipton, a large producer and manufacturer of tea worldwide now clearly labels how they support poor farmers in developing nations by educating their children and this boosts their sales.

{Perhaps Lipton’s photo in the farms}

Consumption Having a Negative Effect on Sustainable Development

A disadvantage is a rebound effect as highlighted by Dr Jorge Zapico on his dissertation. Environmentally friendly cars are produced but the demand has just gone so high giving a case of jumping from the frying pan to the fire (Zapico, 2013). Another disadvantage as has been brought up earlier is the amount of fossil fuels required to be burnt during the production stage of the LCA of ICT goods.

Take for instance as Williams states, “at least 1.2kg of fossil fuel is needed to manufacture a 2g dynamic random access memory (DRAM) chip, a ratio of 600:1 compared to 1:1 or 2:1 ratio for other manufactured goods.” (Williams, 2011) Considering the global demand that is ever on the increase, we can anticipate significant emissions from future production. And it does not end there, ICT products basically have the only single goods that munch up more than a whooping half the elements on the periodic table.

Disposing of them during the termination of their LCA poses a major challenge as recycling especially in upcoming economies such as members of the BRICS block (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Sometimes the supervision of the recycling of materials doesn’t meet the standards required and once again, consequences could turn very ugly sooner rather than later.

A group of people in the chain of production of certain goods essential to consumers are subject to exploitation. Take for instance scandals that have involved firms like IKEA and H & M. There are reports of forced prison labourers in Eastern Europe being used in the mass production certain goods by IKEA. Only when a fire broke out at a garment factory in Bangladesh due to inconsideration of safety hazards did it become publicly known that they were also producing garments for the H&M clothing line.

Which brings us back to the issue of Climate Deniers all over again. As Kate Rowarth puts it, “Oil is the reason the message is not getting through.” Her concerns are that we can try and push as hard as we want, but there exists a certain minority who sit on top and it doesn’t take much of their actions to set our priceless efforts back by several significant steps.

Dawn of Sustainability

Professor Johan Rockström of Stockholm University mentioned sustainability dawning from a 1972 “Earth Summit” in Stockholm when leaders and researchers met from various corners of the globe to identify the most challenging tasks. We are currently somewhere halfway between that time and they year 2050 “arriving into what science has baptised The Anthropocene, having its roots in the industrial revolution but has accelerated into a global scale over the past 50 years.” (Rockström, 2013) We can now ponder and reflect. We are facing the 6th known mass extinction and there is reason to believe human activity on this planet has a lot to do with that as well. Awareness is certainly essential, especially as concerns climate change.

IPCC Berlin Report 2014

On Sunday the 13th of May 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long awaited report in Berlin. Some 1,250 men and women “from many different disciplines, many countries, many perspectives” are said to have participated in compiling it and it just further highlights the goals that we are to achieve with only a few decades now remaining before we get midway into the century.

Al Jazeera Inside Story, led by Kamahi Santa Maria featured an episode entitled ‘Climate Change: Can disaster be avoided’ where he headed a debate discussing the findings of the report which claimed that global temperatures are now increasing at double the previous rate. On the show, he hosted Karen Seto, a co‐author of the IPCC report and Bob Ward from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Ward argues how we are at a desperate race against time as the melting of the Greenland glazier is approaching a point of no return should it continue at that rate. One can only pray the global temperatures don’t exceed a limit between 1o and 4o Celsius whereby some of the very mechanisms versatile for ‘mother’ earth’s resilience reach an irreversible point.

By observing sustainability from these three different lenses (Prof Maathai included), we explore social interaction and integration albeit concentrating more on the environment. Especially as concerns the global increase in temperature, Rockström argues that the more that research is carried out on the field, the more we actually get to realise that we are yet to come to terms to the seriousness of the humbling task at hand.

Meaning that whichever definition we want to give to sustainability, we are in a ‘no man’s land’ kind of situation. New technologies may only take us to a limited extent but it still trickles down to the willingness to adopt radical behavioural culture. And so much has been said, but a little bit done, so at the end of the day, the ultimate way to achieve a sustainable environment and secure a better place for our offspring to live in would be to cut down on the rhetoric and focus more on our actions.

Brian Arwa


Aho & Ullman, Foundations of Computer Science C Edition, Computer Science Press, Copyright © 1995 by W. H. Freeman and Company

Global e-Sustainability Initiative, GeSI SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future

Rockström, Omställningen till en hållbar utveckling, Framtidsutmanningar – Det nya Sverige (8tto Framtidskomissionen 2013)

Rowarth & Ward, RSA - Doughnut Economics: Creating a safe and just space for humanity, United Kingdom, Youtube, 2012

Seto et al., Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, 2014, The Boston Consulting Group

Williams, Environmental Effects of Information and Communication Technologies, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 2011

Zapico, Hacking for Sustainability, EBPrint AB, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013