The nexus of green and digital: An opportunity or a challenge?

Zaki Khoury and Jisoo Lee

Is digital technology a source of emissions, or does it offer solutions to the climate change crisis? The answer is both.

Rapid digital transformation is having an impact on infrastructure sectors that produce significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, such as power and transport. Policymakers in developing countries have noticed and are trying to identify a suitable role for digital technology in the green agenda.

Digital innovation creates new possibilities for climate change mitigation and adaptation but expands the carbon footprint of the ICT sector.  According to the World Economic Forum, digital technology has the potential to cut GHG emissions by 15 percent. And since the remaining global carbon budget is limited, every reduction counts. So, how can countries effectively use digital for good? Korea’s experience offers valuable insights for countries looking to invest in sustainable digital transformation.  

Building a nexus between green and digital

Korea is a leader in the greening of the ICT sector. It was among the first adopters of a green policy initiative — in 2008, it announced its “Low Carbon, Green Growth” commitment under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This led to the 2050 Carbon Neutrality Act, which promotes economic growth, carbon neutrality, and improved quality of life.



Korea’s key green policy milestones

The Korean government takes a whole-of-government approach to the issue. The Presidential Committee on Carbon Neutrality, which manages the country’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions, involves all 18 ministries. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MSIT), for example, plays a critical role in linking technology innovation and the concept of zero-carbon. Its strategy identifies ten core technologies to achieve carbon neutralization by 2050. One of them, digitalization, focuses on data center power consumption and the application of management systems.

There is also an urgent need to green the ICT sector itself. The rapid digital transformation increasingly generates more demand for networks, data centers, computing power, and data-enabled analytics and applications . The manufacture of devices, telecom networks, and data centers contribute the most to GHG emissions.

ICT sector carbon footprint development 2015–2020 including electricity supply chain and grid losses

ICT sector carbon footprint development 2015–2020 (including electricity supply chain and grid losses) Source: Graph extracted from ITU (2020)
Korea plans to introduce green data centers to reduce its power consumption by over 20 percent by 2030. It also intends to apply AI-based nested generation operation and management systems by 2040 , emphasizing efficient management and high-tech monitoring of energy consumption. A data center in Chuncheon, for example, reuses waste heat, generates photovoltaic and solar thermal power, and uses a natural cooling system to increase energy efficiency. This approach increases the use of renewable energy and reduces long-term operating costs.

A World Bank report, Greening Digital in Korea: Korea Case Study for Greening the ICT Sector, explores the country’s pathway to digital sustainability and offers meaningful lessons to other nations working to reduce the ICT sector’s climate impact.

Digital as an enabler for climate action

Electricity and energy demand are expected to grow, leading policymakers to look for ways to manage energy resources more efficiently. However, operators find it challenging to forecast usage with traditional energy distribution systems. The frequent failure of grid operations can lead to excessive energy use.

Korea is increasingly harnessing digital technologies to manage distributed energy sources in real-time collectively. This system reduced the monitoring and maintenance cost and enhanced overall energy use management. Recently, MSIT applied digital twin technologies to build energy-efficient infrastructures. A digital twin, a virtual representation that serves as a real-time digital reflection of a physical objection, can help better manage the operations and optimize energy use.

Enabling policy environment to accelerate climate action

Digital transformation is a double-edged sword — it increases energy consumption and can liberate green innovation for climate action. Korea offers valuable policy practices to developing countries  in their journey towards a carbon-neutral future. For example:

  • Leadership and early government commitment: Korea is committed to long-term and comprehensive policies, research and development, and significant climate funding allocations. A clear goal and a timeframe for guiding policies and strategies are critical.
  • Adopting a cross-ministerial approach for strategy development and implementation: All 18 ministries and local governments focus on leveraging digital for advancing the green agenda. A whole-of-government approach is making it a national priority.
  •  Enabling private sector participation: Korea provided a clear incentive structure for industry leaders (such as SK Telecom, KT, NAVER, Samsung Electronics, KAKAO, and LG Electronics) to share best practices and contribute to climate action through technology innovation.
  •  Increasing public awareness and managing the culture change: Social agreements and education for a sustainable future are also essential. In Korea, 89.2 percent of the population confirmed that they feel the effects of climate change, and 88.5 percent are willing to accept the inconvenience of policies introduced to address the issue.

Korea’s example is worth studying for any country looking to reduce emissions in the ICT sector while also looking to technology to address climate change.  Learn more from the Green and Digital: Accelerating Climate Action — Learning from the Korean Journey webinar.

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