How digital can shape our climate future
Rosie McDonald, Associate Officer for E-Waste Data, ITU
The information and communication technology (ICT) sector today remains highly energy- and materials-intensive. Yet a wide range of existing digital technology solutions can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create resilience among communities.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialized agency for ICTs, works closely with governments and industry partners to leverage the power of digital for climate-change monitoring, mitigation, and adaptation, including through emergency readiness solutions like early warning systems.
Last year I had the privilege of attending COP27, the latest United Nations climate conference, as part of the ITU’s Environment team. While there, I participated in discussions about the critical role played by digital technologies in addressing the world’s most pressing climate concerns.
Engagement at COP27 in Egypt is one example of how ITU works with partners to drive sustainable innovation in ICTs.
As we work to close the digital divide and ensure everyone, everywhere enjoys the benefits of current and future technologies, ITU must also strive to ensure that digital transformation is as green as possible.
Bracing for climate impact
Encouragingly, digital climate solutions are a priority for growing numbers of governments and companies.
During COP27, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced the Executive Action Plan for the Early Warnings for All initiative, a USD 3.1 billion plan to ensure everyone on the planet is protected by early warning systems by 2027. When disaster strikes, alerts save lives by giving people a little bit of extra time to prepare to act or evacuate. This will become increasingly essential amid the onset of climate change and a rising incidence of extreme weather events and natural hazards.
ITU is leading the third pillar of the initiative’s ‘Warning Dissemination and Communication’ Action Plan, to share timely, understandable and usable risk information to all those who need it.
ITU is well placed to highlight opportunities for digital networks and services to reach more people through multiple communication channels. These can include radio, TV, the Internet, social media, mobile phones, sirens.
Some 95 per cent of the world’s population is already covered by mobile broadband networks, and 3 out of 4 people globally own a mobile phone. These networks offer huge opportunities for use as early warnings systems. The technology is already used widely across Europe. So far, however, very few developing countries have implemented it.
To take this forward, ITU is working closely with partners and stakeholders from across both the public and private sectors, as well as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the Risk-informed Early Action Partnership (REAP), the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
ITU also works closely with WMO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to examine the potential of leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) for natural disaster management, helping to lay the groundwork for best practices on the use of AI for detecting and forecasting natural disasters and providing effective communications during the advent of disasters.
Green digital infrastructure
While at COP27, I learned about what other organizations were doing and how their work could align with ITU’s priorities and goals.
The Climate Technology Centre & Network (CTCN) hosted by UNEP, for example, helps developing countries obtain environmentally sound technologies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The network’s Programme of Work for 2023–2027 highlights digital enablers of technology transfer and development in five transformative systems: the water-energy-food nexus, buildings and infrastructure, sustainable mobility, energy systems, and business and industry.
Several ITU members and partners are specifically promoting digital climate action.
The United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), an ITU partner, launched a Government Digital Sustainability Alliance (GDSA) seeking technological solutions to meet UK sustainability commitments.
Similarly, ITU works to promote global and complementary actions to propel e-waste collection rates, to improve environmental and human health conditions, to create jobs, reduce the digital divide and ultimately shift to a circular economy.
The European Space Agency, an ITU member, showcased climate science and solutions based on its Sentinel satellites, which are taking the planet’s pulse and providing data on essential variables such as mass losses of ice sheets, sea surface temperatures, and deforestation. All this relies on ITU’s Radio Regulations.
Looking ahead to COP28
The scale of the climate challenge we now face requires joint action by policy makers, multilateral organizations, and the global ICT sector – particularly to deliver at the required speed, scale, and complexity of transformation needed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and fulfil the Paris Agreement.
As we look ahead to COP28 in Dubai, UAE, later this year, all of us in the international community could do more to harness digital tools to drive effective action on climate-resilient development.
The will for this was evident both at COP27 and at the World Telecommunication Development Conference (WTDC) last year. Many governments are committed to both climate action and digital transformation.
But they often work in silos. There are opportunities for international organizations such as ITU and UNEP to bridge these ambitions and bring key environmental and digital stakeholders together to realize vital common goals.