SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future

By Philipp Jung

From tablets and broadband networks to cloud computing and smartphones, information and communications technology (ICT) has become an integral part of the global economy—and our lives. Its most significant contribution, however, may be its ability to address the threat of climate change, thus paving the way for sustainable economic growth.

By facilitating smarter, more efficient practices across a range of industries, ICT has the potential to reduce annual greenhouse-gas emissions by 9.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020. It would be a significant reduction, representing 16.5 percent of the world’s total emissions that year, and the underlying cuts in energy and fuel consumption would equate to $1.9 trillion in annual savings.

ICT’s impact on emissions is far-reaching. Consider the transportation sector. ICT is at the heart of a range of technologies—including navigation devices, real-time traffic alerts, and sophisticated logistics systems—that help reduce total mileage and the amount of fuel required to transport people and goods. Furthermore, through the adoption of telecommuting and video conferencing, ICT can eliminate transportation needs in certain circumstances.

In a report prepared for the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, The Boston Consulting Group examines the emissions reduction potential of ICT in transportation as well as five other sectors: agriculture and land use, buildings, manufacturing, power, and consumer and service. In addition, the report analyzes the policy changes necessary to foster the uptake of low-carbon-enabling ICT in seven countries: Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, the U.K., and the U.S.

The report, which builds on the 2008 SMART 2020 study, also examines the environmental footprint of the ICT industry—and in particular, the emissions associated with end user devices, telecommunications networks, and data centers. Although direct emissions from ICT are projected to grow from 1.9 percent of global emissions in 2011 to 2.4 percent by 2020, this increase will be more than offset by efficiencies created or amplified by the utilization of ICT. In fact, ICT-enabled emissions reductions will amount to more than seven times the sector’s emissions over the same period.

SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future