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ICT industry tackles growth in CO2 emissions

ICT industry tackles growth in CO2 emissions
By Jaafar Elmirghani, Co-Chair, IEEE Green ICT Initiative

The rise of information and communications technology (ICT) and its astonishing growth has created an urgent challenge to our industry’s energy consumption and resulting emissions.

Recent studies show that the ICT industry today is generating approximately 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, comparable to the worldwide aviation industry. This snapshot alone should be a wake-up call. But the sharp growth curve forecast for ICT-based emissions is truly alarming and far outpaces aviation. ICT is forecast to account for about 4 percent of global CO2 emissions in just five years.

Use of the Internet, which of course depends on ICT, is forecast to grow 30 percent to 40 percent per year, resulting in 30 times its current traffic in 10 years and 1,000 times its current traffic in 20 years. At this growth rate, if nothing is done, ICT in ten years can consume about 60 percent of global energy resources.

Consider this: if we optimize energy efficiency in ICT by a factor of 1,000 over 20 years, we will have made no net change in energy use or emissions!

Clearly, ICT’s energy use and resulting emissions presents one of the great challenges of our time. We cannot permit these daunting forecasts to be realized, for energy consumption reasons and, more importantly, for environmental sustainability. The good news is that the pursuit of solutions to this pressing dilemma offers huge opportunities for innovation and market success.

At the IEEE International Conference on Computing, Control, Networking, Electronics and Embedded Systems Engineering (ICCNEEE) conference this week in Khartoum, Sudan, I will present a keynote address on “Energy Efficient Communications Networks” that addresses a critical aspect of the challenge I have just outlined. (The conference is technically sponsored by IEEE Region 8 and many local universities, organizations and institutes.)

Specifically, I will share the results of work that my colleagues and I have accomplished in our INTelligent Energy awaRe NETworks (INTERNET) project sponsored over the past five years by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a government agency in the United Kingdom. Our collaborators include a number of the world’s largest and most innovative stakeholders. Universities of Leeds and Cambridge are members of the Green Touch project, dedicated to increasing network energy efficiency by a factor of 1,000 compared to 2010 levels. (We have achieved proof-of-concept in attaining this goal.)

The INTERNET project seeks to develop new and disruptive energy-efficient network architectures, optimized for sustainable energy requirements, and validated using national and pan-European and international models. We are developing new protocols and communications techniques to support adaption within such a system, and novel hardware with low energy production and operating requirements.

To place it into context, the ICT-related energy and emissions challenge falls roughly in two parts. About half of ICT energy consumption and emissions are the result of telecom networks and data centers; the other half is the result of end-user devices and habits. We may find ways to address human behavior and end-device inefficiencies. But our INTERNET project is devoted to the fundamental network architectures, protocols and hardware that have been designed for a half-century to serve our needs based on increasing network capacity but without a focus on power optimization. In the simplest terms, we have built over-provisioned networks, with greater-than-needed capacity and, thus, excessive energy consumption and resulting emissions.

The technical details of our work on solutions are, of course, too complex and voluminous to share in this brief blog, but at the ICCNEEE I will discuss in detail our work in six main areas. The outputs will be made available through the INTERNET project as well as through the IEEE Green ICT Initiative, which was created to facilitate such work, provide a platform for discussion and collaboration and disseminate research results in this vital area.

The six foci of the keynote talk, technologies developed in the INTERNET project, are:

  • Optimum use of time-varying renewable energy in core networks
  • Physical topology design with operational and embodied energies
  • Caching and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV)/Video on Demand (VoD) networks
  • Peer-to-peer, energy-efficient networks
  • Distributed, energy-efficient clouds
  • Energy-efficient network virtualization

Attendees at ICCNEEE will receive a full briefing on our progress, but it is critical that the gamut of stakeholders – telecom operators, ICT vendors, service providers and regulators, to name a few – become aware of the ICT energy use and emissions challenge and our and others’ work in meeting it. It is incumbent upon the ICT industry, which has produced wonders, to alter our course and design and implement sustainable practices for the good of humanity.

The solutions will be technical, but the drivers likely will be economics and policy. The economic incentive for innovation is huge. The global players that rely on data centers today are discovering that their energy bills have begun to exceed their cost of human capital, which for many years has been the most expensive factor in their overhead. Policies that limit CO2 emissions, adopted by governments worldwide, are likely to become another major driver of change.

The hurdles to implementing energy efficient network designs are many. We must ensure network reliability as we evolve our ICT networks. Stakeholders need standards to ensure the compatibility of components and inter-connected networks. Policymakers must act.

The stakes are high and involve nothing less than our legacy for a sustainable planet and future generations. Perhaps there is no higher calling for today’s ICT engineers and stakeholders. We have defined the challenge, we understand the implications and now we must expend all effort to achieve our goals.