How we can turn digital technology innovation into climate action

By Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General
*The following is a Foreword published in the new ITU report, “Turning digital technology into climate action.”

Today, we are faced with not one but two deep transformations.

The first one, driven by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things, 5G and many others, is changing how governments, businesses and individuals will act in this new century.

As for the second transformation — climate change — it disrupts ecosystems, jeopardizing biodiversity, food and water security and the future of life on our planet.

The question for us is whether humanity can turn this digital revolution into climate action and, most importantly, whether we can do it before it is too late.

Already, human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0 °C of global warming above pre-industrial levels.

It has taken a toll on all of us, including and especially on the least developed countries and Small Island Developing States where investment in digital infrastructure and services is critical.
Window of opportunity
The window of opportunity to keep the world safely from warming above 1.5 °C is closing very fast.

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer solutions to monitor, mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The evidence and case studies presented in this report cover the full range of measures that are being deployed to better understand the Earth’s system, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience to the climate crisis – from using space sensing observation to track deforestation to developing smart grids to accelerate the energy transition to strengthening early warnings systems against the rising number of extreme weather events.
Read the report

With more and more people coming online, more data being generated and more devices connecting to the network, the digital ecosystem’s carbon footprint is growing.

It is imperative to monitor this growth closely to weigh the benefits and costs of ICTs.

As part of this effort, ITU has recently established a new Focus Group that will provide a global platform to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of artificial intelligence and other frontier technologies, as well as these technologies’ ability to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

As the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs, ITU has been working with the industry to minimize the carbon footprint of ICTs, developing international standards (ITU-T Recommendations), for example, in areas as diverse as smart cities, data centres and e-waste management.

We will continue to bring our core competencies of spectrum management and satellite coordination, development of international standards and good policy and best practices to help our government and private sector members and others work together to move towards a lower carbon and more circular economy.

This report will inform the upcoming United Nations Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Action Summit in September in New York. It is a call to action, a testament to the power of technology and the faith in the idea that together we can leverage ICTs to address the existential threat of climate change.