Computer Science
Green Information and Communications Technology Strategies


Computer Science
Green Information and Communications Technology Strategies

Unit 1: Politics, Science, and Business of Sustainability

Seminar: The Global ICT Footprint

In the previous section, we looked at the science of climate change and how electricity used to run computers and telecommunications can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In this section we look at estimates of how much ICT contributes to equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2e) to calculate the global ICT carbon footprint from use of telecommunications, data centres, and desktop PCs.

The carbon footprint is an estimate of the amount of CO2e emitted by activity, in this case the use of ICT. The carbon footprint can be estimated from the embodied energy used to produce the ICT product and the energy used to operate the equipment:

carbon footprint = embodied energy + operating energy

Embodied energy (or embodied carbon) refers to the energy used to manufacture a product or service and to supply it to the point of use. This includes the energy necessary for raw material extraction, transport, manufacturing, assembly, installation, and equipment disposal. ICT professionals would not normally be required to carry out detailed analyses of embodied energy for specific products, but they use estimates supplied for a class of products, such as desktop computers or laptops.

Operating energy is a measure of the energy used to operate ICT equipment. This can be measured directly using an energy meter (electric meter) which measures the electrical energy used. Alternatively, energy use may be estimated from the power that equipment uses (specified in watts), multiplied by the estimated amount of time the equipment will be used (in hours) to give the energy (in kilowatt hours).

A greenhouse gas conversion factor can then be used to convert energy consumed in kWh to kg of equivalent carbon dioxide. For example, a computer using 200 W of power for 10 hours per day uses 2 kWh of energy. Multiplying by a conversion factor of 0.537 kg CO2/kWh produces a total of 1.074 kg CO2 per day.

Energy and greenhouse gas measures are only approximate. There have been attempts to estimate these for industry sectors, nations, and the world.

SMART 2020

Please read the following chapters from SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age by The Climate Group, June 2008. A summary of this document is provided below.

  • Chapter 1: The time for change
  • Chapter 2: Taking direct action
Report Summary – SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age

Retrieved from

The Climate Group, June 2008

The ICT sector has transformed the way we live, work, learn, and play. From mobile phones and micro-computer chips to the Internet, ICT has consistently delivered innovative products and services that are now an integral part of everyday life. ICT has systematically increased productivity and supported economic growth across both developed and developing countries. But what impact do pervasive information and communication technologies have on global warming? Will the ICT sector hinder or help our fight against dangerous climate change?

To answer these questions, this report has quantified the direct emissions from ICT products and services based on expected growth in the sector. It also looked at where ICT could enable significant reductions of emissions in other sectors of the economy and has quantified these in terms of CO2e emission savings and cost savings.

Aside from emissions associated with deforestation, the largest contribution to man-made GHG emissions comes from power generation and fuel used for transportation.

It is therefore not surprising that the biggest role ICTs could play is in helping to improve energy efficiency in power transmission and distribution (T&D): in buildings and factories that demand power and in the use of transportation to deliver goods.

In total, ICTs could deliver approximately 7.8 GtCO2e of emissions savings in 2020. This represents 15% of emissions in 2020 based on a business-as-usual estimation. It represents a significant proportion of the reductions below 1990 levels that scientists and economists recommend by 2020 to avoid dangerous climate change.[1] In economic terms, the ICT-enabled energy efficiency translates into approximately €600 billion ($946.5 billion[2]) in cost savings.[3]

This opportunity cannot be overlooked. Our analysis identifies some of the biggest and most accessible opportunities for ICT to achieve these savings.

  • Smart motor systems: A review of manufacturing in China has identified that without optimization, 10% of China’s emissions (2% of global emissions) in 2020 will come from China’s motor systems alone. To improve industrial efficiency by even 10% would deliver up to 200 million tonnes (Mt) CO2e savings. Applied globally, optimization of motors and industrial automation would reduce 0.97 GtCO2e in 2020, worth €68 billion ($107.2 billion).[4]
  • Smart logistics: Through a host of efficiencies in transport and storage, smart logistics in Europe could deliver fuel, electricity, and heating savings of 225 MtCO2e. The global emissions savings from smart logistics in 2020 would reach 1.52 GtCO2e, with energy savings worth €280 billion ($441.7 billion).
  • Smart buildings: A close look at buildings in North America indicates that better building design, management, and automation could save 15% of North America’s buildings emissions. Globally, smart buildings technologies would enable 1.68 GtCO2e of emissions savings, worth €216 billion ($340.8 billion).
  • Smart grids: Reducing T&D losses in India’s power sector by 30% is possible through better monitoring and management of electricity grids, first with smart meters and then by integrating more advanced ICTs into the “energy Internet.” Smart grid technologies were the largest opportunity found in the study, and they could globally reduce 2.03 GtCO2e, worth €79 billion ($124.6 billion).

While the ICT sector plans to significantly step up the energy efficiency of its products and services, ICT’s largest influence will take place by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors, an opportunity that could deliver carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire ICT sector in 2020.

These are not easy wins. There are policy, market, and behavioural hurdles that need to be overcome to deliver the savings that are possible. For example, Chinese factory managers find it difficult to stop producing long enough to implement more efficient industrial processes, because they risk losing revenue and competitiveness.

Logistics efficiency is hampered by fragmentation in the market, which makes it difficult to coordinate activities across the ICT sector to achieve economies of scale. Even with the latest technologies implemented, buildings are only efficient if managed properly. In India, there is no coordinated national roadmap for smart grid implementation, and more needs to be done to build the cross-functional and cross-sectoral capabilities needed to design and implement innovative business and operating models and to deliver new technology solutions.

In addition to the savings possible by supporting other sectors in becoming more energy efficient, there are also potential energy savings from dematerialization or substitution—replacing high-carbon physical products and activities (such as books and meetings) with virtual low-carbon equivalents (e-commerce/e-government and advanced videoconferencing). Our study indicates that using technology to dematerialize the way we work and operate across public and private sectors could deliver a reduction of 500 MtCO2e in 2020—the equivalent of the total ICT footprint in 2002, or just less than the emissions of the UK in 2007. However, these solutions would need to be more widely implemented than they are today to realize their full abatement potential.

This is the opportunity the ICT sector has in the fight against climate change. But it comes at a cost. Emissions from the sector are estimated to rise significantly over the coming years—from 0.5 GtCO2e today to 1.4 GtCO2e in 2020 under business-as-usual growth.[5] This growth assumes that the sector will continue to make the impressive advances in energy efficiency that it has done previously. However, meeting the sheer scale of demand for products and necessary supporting services in emerging markets such as China and India and continuing to deliver the services to increase productivity growth in the developed world will effectively outweigh the adoption of the current wave of efficiency benefits per product or service. There is also the possibility that the speed of introduction and the impact of new ICT technology or the mass adoption of social networking could cut carbon emissions in ways currently impossible to predict.

Getting SMART

The scale of emissions reductions that the smart integration of ICT could enable makes the ICT sector a key player in the fight against climate change, despite its growing carbon footprint. No other sector can supply technology capabilities so integral to energy efficiency across such a range of other sectors or industries.

But with this potential comes responsibility. Emissions reductions in other sectors will not simply present themselves; the ICT sector must demonstrate leadership to address climate change issues, and governments must provide the optimum regulatory context. This report outlines the key actions needed.

These actions can be summarized as a SMART transformation.

  • Standardize (S) how energy consumption and emissions information can be traced across different processes beyond the ICT sector’s own products and services.
  • Monitor (M) energy and emissions across the economy in real time, providing the data needed to optimize systems for energy efficiency.
  • Develop network tools to create accountability (A) for energy consumption and emissions alongside other key business priorities.
  • Use this information to rethink (R) how we should live, learn, play, and work in a low-carbon economy, initially by optimizing efficiency, but also by providing viable low-cost alternatives to high-carbon activities. Although isolated efficiency gains do have an impact, ultimately it will be a platform–or a set of technologies and architectures–working coherently together that will have the greatest impact.
  • Transformation (T) of the economy will occur when standardization, monitoring, accounting, optimization, and the development and diffusion of business models that drive low-carbon alternatives occur at scale across all sectors of the economy.

The ICT sector can’t act in isolation if it is to seize its opportunity to tackle climate change. It will need the help of governments and other industries. Smart implementation of ICTs will require policy support including standards implementation, secure communication of information within and between sectors, and financing for research and pilot projects.

This report demonstrates the potential role that the ICT sector could play in mitigating climate change. It is now up to policy makers, industry leaders, and the sector itself to realize this potential. The stakes couldn’t be higher.


[1] The Stern Review suggested that a 20%-40% reduction in emissions by developed countries (below the 1990 levels) would be a necessary interim target based on IPCC and Hadley Centre analysis. Source: Stern, N. (2008). Key elements of a global deal on climate change. London: London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from

[2] All currency conversions to US$ based on exchange rate €1=$ 1.57757. 9 June 2008.

[3] Exact figures: €553 billion ($872.3 billion) in energy and fuel saved and an additional €91 billion ($143.5 billion) in carbon saved, assuming a cost of carbon of €20/tonne, for a total of €644 billion ($1,015 billion) savings.

[4] All value figures here include a cost for carbon of €20/tonne. See Appendix 3 of the report for detailed assumptions.

[5] The scope of this analysis includes whole life emissions from PCs and peripherals, data centres, telecom networks, and devices.


Visit one or more of the following websites, and practice calculating your personal and corporate carbon footprints. Share what you come up with in the General Discussion Forum. Are these effective tools? What are their limitations? Please report dead links, and share any other carbon calculators that you find to be effective in the Broken Links, Errors, and Updates Wiki. We will be looking more closely at carbon footprints for business in Section 2.3.

Last modified: Thursday, 29 May 2014, 10:24 AM MDT
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