How public-private collaboration can drive effective digital climate action

Malcolm Johnson, ITU Deputy Secretary-General

The UN Secretary-General’s address to the UN General Assembly last week made it clear: we “are on the edge of an abyss”, in his words. One of the six “Great Divides” he mentioned was that of climate, and with alarm bells ringing at fever pitch, he urged us to get serious and act fast.

The President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, was somewhat more positive, noting “five rays of hope” based on witnessing “incredible acts of kindness and compassion that reaffirmed our common humanity and collective strength.”

Another ray of hope, in my opinion, is the application of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

This has been a priority of mine and something the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialized agency for ICTs, has advocated for nearly 15 years.

ITU enjoys a large membership of 193 Member States and, unusually for a UN agency, several hundred private sector companies, as well as academia and civil society – a truly international public-private partnership.

This increasingly diverse membership enables ITU to respond to contemporary challenges, including climate change.

It also facilitates close collaboration with industry-based groups like the Global Enabling Digital Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).

GeSI’s recently launched Digital with Purpose movement is gaining traction inside and outside the tech sector. More and more companies signing the pledge signals the increasing commitment of the private sector to both the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I look forward to further strengthening such cooperation in the run-up to the UN climate change conference, COP26.

Measuring progress

ITU’s experience holds valuable lessons for businesses on climate action partnerships.

Firstly, the development of international standards, a core ITU function, creates a universal language that unites people, businesses, and economies and societies. One new ITU standard, ITU L.1470, details the emission-reduction trajectories needed to cut the ICT sector’s greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent, in line with the targets set in the Paris Agreement.

Developed in collaboration with GeSI and other partners, these are the first ICT-specific targets approved by the Science-Based Target Initiative.

A testament to the power of collaboration, I am confident standards can help reduce the growing environmental footprint of ICTs and get the sector on a decarbonization pathway.

Secondly, we need smart, sustainable cities that digitally incorporate energy, buildings and mobility. Equally, we need to be able to measure progress. Right now, cities produce more than 70 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. Moreover, last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that heatwaves, flooding, sea level rise and other climate consequences may be magnified for cities. Key performance indicators set out by the ITU-led United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities initiative, based on an ITU standard aligned with the SDGs, are used in more than 100 cities around the world. These indicators provide a benchmark for best practices and a practical framework to assess each city’s progress towards net-zero emissions.

Finally, space is key for terrestrial sustainability.

Satellite earth observation and remote sensing systems are ever more vital as countries seek tools to address threats posed by extreme weather conditions and climate change.

Earth observation helps to measure progress related to multiple SDGs. The international  Radio Regulations maintained by ITU constitute the only international treaty on radio spectrum and satellite orbits, allocating bandwidth and protecting radio and satellite systems from harmful interference.

Pooling resources

When climate talks open in Glasgow on 31 October, expectations for ICTs could be high on the agenda – especially after what these technologies have achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic.

No one asks anymore, as they did 15 years ago, why ITU should publish a report on ICTs and climate change.

At the same time, we must be more ambitious to bridge the climate and digital divides. Tech remains still out of reach, unaffordable, irrelevant, unsafe, or too complicated to use for almost half the world’s population – 3.7 billion people.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, the world now is on a catastrophic pathway.

Today’s digital transformation must deliver on the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We must ensure it does so before it is too late.

I am encouraged to see the level of commitment in the Digital with Purpose Initiative, which promises real impact, not just nice words. As we look towards COP26, let us continue building on this commitment to pool resources for the common good.

Based on Malcolm Johnson’s keynote address at GeSI’s 24 September side event during the high-level segment of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly.

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