We focus now on how ICT can help organizations, industries, communities and even countries reduce their environmental impact. We call this positive contribution an ‘enablement effect.’ Below, we also look at which industries can benefit most, the importance of measuring ICT’s enablement effects and real-life examples from around the world.
How intelligent ICT can address the world’s environmental challenges
Technology can be applied in many – often very innovative – ways to solve environmental problems in a wide range of situations and industry sectors. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) was the first organization to provide credible estimates of the huge potential of ICT’s enablement effects. GeSI’s 2008 report SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age looked at how ICT could significantly reduce emissions in various sectors, and quantified these reductions concerning carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions savings and cost savings by 2020.
In 2012, GeSI published a follow-up report called SMARTer 2020: The Role of ICT in Driving a Sustainable Future, which found that ICT could be used to reduce global CO2e emissions by 16.5%, or 9.1 gigatons of CO2e, by 2020. This is seven times the emissions that ICT currently produces, and would be equivalent to a US$1.9 trillion saving in gross energy and fuel costs.
SMARTer 2020 also analyzed ICT’s emissions-reduction potential in seven countries – Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, the UK and the US – and provided recommendations to policy-makers on strategies for realizing that potential.
How does ICT improve global environmental sustainability?
In SMARTer 2020, GeSI identified a range of ICT solutions that could significantly reduce carbon emissions in six sectors: Agriculture, building, manufacturing, power, service and consumer, and transportation.
GeSI also identified four ‘change levers’ that categorize the different ways ICT can benefit the environment, particularly in relation to reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These change levers are:
- Digitalization and dematerialization: Substituting or eliminating the need for an emissions-intensive product or process
- Data collection and communication: Real-time data analysis and communication, feedback and learning to enable better decision-making
- System integration: Managing the use of resources
- Process, activity and functional optimization: Improving efficiency through simulation, automation, redesign or control
Each of these change levers is driven by a range of factors, such as technological innovation, market trends and changing business demands. The figure below shows the principal drivers for each change lever, as well as estimates of the potential global CO2e reduction (or ‘abatement’) by 2020. This potential varies greatly between change levers, with more than half the total forecast reduction relating to ‘process, activity and functional optimization’.
SMARTer 2020 also identified a set of solutions (or ‘sub-levers’), which are specific technologies or groups of technologies that can significantly reduce CO2e emissions. The table below shows how these sub-levers relate to each change lever and apply to each of the six sectors identified above. It also shows the CO2e emissions–reduction potential (as an absolute figure and as a percentage of emissions for each sector).
Transport sector could drive the greatest emissions reductions
The transport sector comes out on top, with the potential to reduce its CO2e emissions by up to 25% by 2020, if it implements the 11 solutions GeSI identified. The solutions considered to have the greatest abatement potential are telecommuting, eco-driving (using technology to enable more fuel-efficient driving), integrating electric vehicles (EVs) and biofuels, and logistics optimization. Within the other sectors, the solutions with the most abatement potential are listed below.
- Power: Renewables integration, grid storage integration and power grid optimization (that is, developing smart grids)
- Manufacturing: Process optimization and optimization of variable-speed motors
- Service and consumer: Building design and inventory reduction
- Agriculture and land use: Livestock management and integration of renewable energies
- Buildings: Building design, integration of renewable energies and building management systems
The enabling solutions outlined above involve digitalization and dematerialization to varying degrees. Digitalization and dematerialization solutions, which include technologies such as online media applications, video conferencing, telecommuting, and e-commerce, were the first enabling solutions and had become the most familiar. This is because digitalization and dematerialization are the key functions of ICT; they convert the physical into digital or virtual, usually making processes or activities cheaper, faster and/or simpler. This also often has a positive environmental impact.
For example, downloading music from the Internet rather than purchasing CDs from retail store results in fewer CDs manufactured and fewer trips to the shop. This means lower energy consumption and fewer GHG emissions. This is a very simple example but as you will see below, calculating the actual environmental impact of enabling solutions is very challenging.
Enabling solutions associated with the other three change levers are more complex and less established than digitalization and dematerialization solutions. These include solutions that use ICT in a creative or innovative way, such as in ‘smart grids’ and ‘smart cities.’ These smart solutions usually increase the efficiency of various systems – for example, smart grids automatically collect information, including about power supply and consumption, to improve the efficiency and reliability of energy distribution. Most smart solutions (and most enabling solutions) are designed to achieve business benefits such as cost savings or increased productivity, with sustainability benefits often a by-product.
Great potential, but is it realistic?
From the evidence in SMARTer 2020, it’s clear there are numerous ways ICT can help reduce the environmental impact of business operations, particularly by lowering GHG emissions. But how likely are organizations and governments around the world to adopt these measures?
This will depend on how attractive it is for individuals, businesses, public sector organizations and governments to invest in enabling technologies, as well as the availability of those technologies. These two issues are influenced by factors specific to each country, sector, and enabling solution, including:
- Technology. Adopting enabling technologies is easier when the supporting infrastructure is already in place – for example, existing networking, sensor or metering infrastructure could enable a city to implement a smart grid system relatively quickly.
- Economics. The higher the price of energy or carbon (current and projected), the stronger the financial case for organizations to invest in enabling solutions. Government financial incentives to encourage adoption of a particular technology may also bolster the business case. The costs of enabling solutions vary widely depending on factors such as market maturity, which means adoption may be hampered by initial high costs before economies of scale are possible.
- Legislation. The need to comply with environmental legislation may strengthen the business case.
- Reputation. Because sectors place different levels of importance on sustainability-related reputation, certain sectors may adopt enabling technologies faster.
This is a very simple overview of a highly complex and interrelated set of factors – many of which are outside direct government or business control. However, there are factors the global community can influence – such as building supporting technology infrastructure and providing financial incentives – and these can help remove the significant barriers to adopting enabling technologies.
The challenges of measuring ICT’s global positive impact
Given the challenges we’ve discussed above, is the world on track to realizing the potential environmental benefits of ICT? Unfortunately, accurately measuring ICT’s enablement effects is exceptionally difficult and barely done in practice. For example, how would you calculate the contribution of ICT components to the total CO2 savings of a smart grid? Even if this was possible, how could you add up all the ICT-related CO2 savings from all the smart grids around the world to arrive at a total global figure? Credible data such as this simply isn’t available, nor is it likely to be in the future.
While it’s not yet possible to accurately calculate the global enablement effects of ICT, Fujitsu believes – based on the evidence presented by GeSI and similar organizations – that mass implementation of the enabling solutions discussed above would have a net positive effect on the environment.
Why organizations should measure the sustainability benefits of ICT
Despite the challenges of measuring global enablement effects, it is becoming important for organizations to calculate the expected environmental benefit of implementing an ICT solution. Businesses increasingly need this information for investment cases when introducing new systems and technologies. Most businesses express return on investment in direct financial terms, with environmental benefit further down the priority list. However, with rising energy costs and the introduction of carbon taxes in some countries, environmental improvements can also lead to significant cost savings. Environmental benefits are also important to the growing number of organizations that have set ambitious emissions-reduction targets.
Measuring the likely GHG savings from implementing an ICT solution can be complex for all but the simplest solutions. Enabling solutions – and their impact on an organization’s operations and processes – vary greatly. They could include an ICT system that replaces a manual system or a new ICT system that replaces an existing one. An enabling solution may affect people (such as staff or customers), transport (for example, deliveries or how staff commute), resource use (including paper or digital media) and buildings (for example, office or warehouse heating and lighting). Enabling solutions can also affect other organizations, such as suppliers and customers, and wider society. Because of these complexities, it is important to be clear about the reporting scope when measuring CO2 emissions.
Methods for measuring enablement effects
While environmental organizations have focused on developing methodologies to measure the environmental impact of ICT itself, some of these efforts have included methodologies that measure ICT’s enablement effects. For example, the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and ITU (International Telecommunication Union) initiatives.
The most advanced and comprehensive independent methodology is probably that developed by GeSI and published in 2010 (Evaluating the carbon-reducing impacts of ICT: An assessment methodology). This is a full lifecycle assessment (LCA) methodology covering GHG emissions only and builds on similar work by other industry groups. A key purpose of the methodology is to provide a credible, industry-wide way to quantify emissions reductions, thereby overcoming a key obstacle to realizing ICT’s enablement potential (as identified in the GeSI SMART 2020 report).
As with other ICT footprinting initiatives, widespread adoption of methodologies to measure ICT enablement effects has been slow. One of the main reasons is the cost and effort involved in implementing them, particularly in obtaining sufficient and reliable data. Another possible reason is the lack of expertise in this fairly specialized area.
Because of these challenges, many ICT vendors have developed simpler methodologies for their use. For example, Fujitsu has developed a methodology for calculating the CO2 emissions reductions associated with its technology solutions, as well as a process for measuring the actual reductions from solutions expected to yield significant CO2 savings (more than 15%). This is not a full LCA methodology, but it can be very useful in comparing current CO2 emissions with those of a new ICT system. To allow organizations to use this methodology, Fujitsu also provides a web-based calculation tool called EcoCalc, which is supported by an extensive reference database that includes data such as international electricity emissions factors.
To date, Fujitsu customers have registered and recorded CO2 emissions savings for around 300 Fujitsu Environmentally Conscious Solutions (ECS). For example, as part of its paperless office program, Japanese company Sanrio implemented a Fujitsu ECS based on Fujitsu’s Interstage List Works software. By reducing the number of paper forms and the space needed to store them, and improving information management processing efficiency, Sanrio cut its annual CO2 emissions by more than half – from 52.3 tons (metric tons) to 23.1 tons (metric tons). The diagram below illustrates these savings.
Enabling solutions: Real-world examples
Saudi Arabia: Smart Community Environmental Monitoring System
Rapid industrialization in Saudi Arabia is creating serious environmental problems, such as air and water pollution. Fujitsu is working with the Saudi Industrial Property Authority (MODON) to build a monitoring system that uses sensors to measure air and water quality, to constantly monitor environmental pollution. The new system will be installed in the Dammam 2nd Industrial City in the Eastern Province, the Riyadh 2nd Industrial City in the Saudi Capital and the Jeddah 1st Industrial City on the west coast. The diagram below illustrates how the system monitors a variety of pollutants and analyzes data to inform environmental initiatives.
Japan: Aizu Wakamatsu Region Smart Community Project
Aizu Wakamatsu City Hall and Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. have launched the Aizu Wakamatsu Area Smart Community Promotion Project with assistance from Fujitsu. This project aims to create a ‘smart community’ in the Aizu Wakamatsu region of Fukushima Prefecture.
The three organizations have explored ways to build a smart community that is environmentally friendly and low carbon. The project aims to revitalize the local community, generate new businesses, and pioneer the creation of an urban environment that is highly resistant to disaster and convenient for residents.
The organizations aim to create a smart community by establishing a foundation for generating and using renewable energy in a self-sufficient manner. Going forward, the organizations will make efforts to deploy the technology throughout Fukushima Prefecture, thereby contributing to the rebuilding of the region.
Supercomputers: Throwing processing power at the problem
Many sustainability-related applications – such as climate change modeling, environmental process simulation, and forecasting and planning for natural disasters – depend on massive amounts of raw computing power. These applications typically involve quickly running huge numbers of simulations of real-world events, and/or conducting highly complex, multivariate calculations. Below are some examples of such applications, and how they are helping communities become more sustainable.
Singapore: Sustainable urban development
The Government of Singapore has started a project to better understand Singapore’s urban environment, potentially using high-performance computing (HPC), and to develop innovative solutions to a range of the city’s problems. In 2013, Fujitsu and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) initiated joint discussions on establishing the country’s first Center of Excellence (CoE) for Computational Social Science and Engineering. The CoE will aim to develop next-generation solutions for sustainable urban development, based on real-world data with HPC-enabled technologies.
The CoE will use data from various government agencies to understand the complex dynamics within the city and use modeling and simulation to guide critical decisions, including how new technologies are implemented. This will increase the efficiency of resource use and allocation, and generate vital growth opportunities in new areas, including:
- Transportation management. An efficient and sustainable transport system must be able to monitor and understand the behavior of and relationship between commuters, road users, and network systems. This insight will help the Singapore Government optimize transport services, project future demand, identify capacity tipping points and assess system performance.
- Energy management. This involves analyzing energy supply and demand by using technology to track power consumption, to reduce waste and optimize energy management.
- Computational social systems. The Singapore Government will develop computational systems and methods for processing social information such as consumer behavior and lifestyles in real time (or near real time), so it can improve public, business, healthcare and educational services.
Wales, UK: Cutting-edge research to solve environmental problems
The High-Performance Computing (HPC) Wales program in the UK, where Fujitsu supercomputing technology is used to address a wide range of real-world problems, includes some sustainability-related applications sponsored by Fujitsu through Ph.D. studentships. Two example current projects are:
- Development of a water-collection device inspired by Biomimetics is about applying the structure and function of biological systems to the design and engineering of materials and machines. This project is seeking to help solve global water shortage problems by taking inspiration from creatures that survive in harsh dry climates. The outcome will be a full-scale working prototype device capable of extracting water from fogs, mists, dews and humid air. Application of such a device will potentially have a significant impact on the quality of life of people living in arid developing countries.
- Computer simulation of supported nano-particle catalysts for the production of chemical feedstocks from plant waste. The project aim is to replace polymers (large molecules consisting of many small repeated molecules) derived from oil, and used in applications such as food packaging, with new materials that are produced from sustainable sources – while maintaining the properties of the packaging. High-performance computers are used to provide insight into the reactions which underpin the new catalysis through computational chemistry. This insight will be used to improve the performance of the catalytic materials for the target reaction and so lead to new uses for green feedstock materials derived from agricultural waste.
Japan: Defending against tsunamis
To prevent or minimize damage caused by tsunamis, scientists need accurate simulations to develop effective early warning systems, hazard maps, and coastal area safety assessments. Tohoku University and Fujitsu are collaborating on 3D tsunami simulations that can precisely calculate inundation on land and in rivers, with Fujitsu developing an advanced simulation running on the Fujitsu K computer, which it validated against in-situ measurements taken during the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami.
Australia: Smart energy management
Global property developer Lend Lease builds homes that have a low environmental impact and is a leader in sustainable design and construction. The company recently needed to construct a number of Green Star rated buildings within tightly constrained budgets and time frames. Fujitsu collaborated with Switch Automation – a company that develops home-automation technologies – to design a system for Lend Lease that would improve the Green Star rating of these new buildings. The system continuously monitors energy and water usage and provides real-time and historical usage and trend data through a simple in-home display. This gives residents and building managers greater visibility of energy and resource consumption.
Quebec, Canada: Optimizing forest management
The Quebec Department of Natural Resources uses an innovative application, designed by Fujitsu, which allows it to harvest the right tree at the right time in public woodlands. The application uses complex mathematical models covering the various stages of forest evolution, including initial inventory, growth, protection and tree mortality. It also includes a harvesting operations schedule, based on constraints such as protected areas, requirements for conserving biodiversity and economic factors.
For further thought and discussion
- ICT has huge potential to deliver sustainability benefits at a local and global level. How can ICT be used innovatively in your organization, community or personal life to improve sustainability?
- Most of ICT’s potential to deliver sustainability benefits remains untapped due to many factors, including insufficient supporting infrastructure; a lack of methodologies and data to measure the benefits; and a lack of awareness in the private and public sectors of the potential benefits. How can organizations and governments tackle these inhibitors?
- Quantifying the benefits of ICT-enabled sustainability solutions is key to developing convincing business cases for investing in them. Which, if any, methodologies does your organization use? Do you share experiences and best practice with standards groups and related non-government organizations to help the ICT industry develop relevant standards and guidance?