ICTs for ‘e-Environment’: The Broader Picture

While global concerns rise over the impacts that human activities have on the environment, an increasing number of ICT practitioners, researchers and technology advocates are exploring the potential of these tools in the response to climate change.

In the midst of the imminent, yet uncertain climatic conditions, interest in mitigation and monitoring strategies is now combined with the urgency of learning to cope and adapt to climate changes, particularly in vulnerable developing environments.

It is in this context that research on the role of ICTs in climate change is starting to flourish through a number of projects and initiatives, supported mainly by international organizations and NGOs around the world. Some of these can be found in a report commissioned by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) titled ICTs for e-Environment.

The concept of ‘e-Environment’ was used in the 2003 World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) Plan of Action to make reference to the benefits of ICT applications in three main areas:

  • ICT use for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources;
  • ICT use in actions and programs for sustainable production and consumption, and the environmentally safe disposal and recycling of discarded hardware and components used in ICTs; and
  • ICT use to forecast and monitor the impact of natural and man-made disasters, particularly in developing countries, LDCs and small economies.

Building on this definition, the 2008 ITU report provides a comprehensive account of ICT activities and applications that indicate the impact of ICTs in the environment, as well as their role in mitigation and adaptation efforts. It also provides a set of recommendations aimed at strengthening the capacity of developing countries to benefit from the potential of these tools in the context of climate change.

The document is an important contribution to a flourishing field of enquiry, and constitutes a great starting point for further in-depth research and discussion.

The findings of the report include the following key points:

  • ICTs & Carbon Footprint: ICTs can help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) missions while increasing energy efficiency and reducing the use of natural resources (through travel replacement, dematerialization and reduced energy consumption).
  • ICTs & Human Activities: While ICTs are essential to our understanding of the environment, further research is needed to understand the long-term impacts of ICTs on human activities.
  • ICTs & Decision-Making: New technologies such as geographic information system (GIS) and a new generation of web-based services are having a profound effect facilitating decision-making.
  • ICTs & Connectivity: Broadband Internet connection is a key tool to support environmental research, learning and decision-making.
  • ICTs & Developing Capacity: Developing countries face important challenges in taking advantage of ICT tools in their response to climate change. It is necessary to strengthen their mitigation and adaptation capacity, while helping them to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  • ICTs & a Holistic Approach: Its necessary a comprehensive and integrated approach to global environmental action through access to ICTs and new management practices to avoid duplication of efforts.
  • ICTs, e-Government & the Environment: It is necessary to raise the profile of environmental issues within ICT strategic planning initiatives at the national level, particularly in e-Government initiatives.

In view of the growing international attention to developing country needs and perspectives, the report provides a good opportunity to reflect about how to effectively engage developing stakeholders in the analysis and implementation of climate change actions and strategies.

Beyond the provision of guidelines or recommendations, how can the international community work hand in hand towards joint action in the e-environment field?  This question includes stakeholders from the Government, civil society and private sectors, as well as the international donor community.

Six years and many international forums have passed since the 2003 WSIS, and although important progress has been made, and we are still facing the challenge of firmly positioning the ‘e’ as part of the environment discussion.

ICTs and Adaptation Mapping: Emerging Initiatives

As the international spotlight on COP15 decreases, the most challenging part of the process has just begun: the time for action and accountability, the time to learn the lessons, digest the vast amount of information shared, and identify synergies for coordinated action.

This challenge is particularly relevant to emerging topics such as the role of ICTs in climate change.

Although most of the attention on the role of these technologies in climate change has been focused on mitigation efforts, namely on their role to help reduce the carbon footprint, interest is increasing in their contribution to monitoring and adaptation.

As an example of the growing momentum that these technologies are generating, an organisation called Resources for the Future launched the Global Adaptation Atlas during the Copenhagen event. The Atlas consists of a dynamic mapping tool that allows the creation of maps reflecting climate change impacts.

The data displayed focuses on the impacts of climate change in food, health, land, livelihood and water, all critical issues especially in developing countries.

This initiative is particularly interesting when considering factors such as:

  • Beyond thematic impact, the map displays adaptation activities (information that can also be uploaded by users), including project description, funding and contacts, which can help to foster collaboration and avoid duplication of efforts.
  • It highlights the importance of information sharing for monitoring and adaptation, as well as the usefulness of spatial information that can be reflected in user-friendly interfaces (having greater chances of being accessed by end-users in vulnerable areas)
  • It also suggests the potential of innovative applications to inform and convey knowledge to decision makers, researchers and the public in general on key climate change threats.
  • It shows us that ICTs can play a role in helping to reduce climate change uncertainty, and identify key areas of vulnerability. This can be particularly important to mobilize and motivate action at the local and national levels.

Interesting initiatives that relate to the use of ICTs in climate change are emerging worldwide. It is now our task to share them, discuss them and learn from them, building on the momentum generated by COP15 to avoid key issues and gaps identified falling into the cracks of global action.

ICTs and COP16: Some Issues to Consider

As we move beyond the hype, the hope or the frustration that events such as COP15 inspire, its fair to recognize the intrinsic value of the process that has brought us here. There is value on the renewed global awareness of the fact that our environment is rapidly and irreversibly changing, as well as on the realization of the close links that exist between climate change and the vulnerability of the poor.

There is also value in the recognition of new issues that play a role in fostering development amidst the shifting climate, and that can make a difference in the type of response that we are able provide to its challenges. Amongst them, the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is particularly relevant.

ICTs and Climate Change was the focus of a side event organized by ITU and OECD, in partnership with GeSI, during the UNFCCC climate change talk in Barcelona, last month. All the presentations are available in YouTube.

Graham Vickery (OECD) was one of the speakers invited (starts in minute 8:24).

He pointed out the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of ICTs in our daily life, and perhaps because of it, we have failed to make the link between their potential and our response to climate change.

He also suggested 3 main levels of ICT impact in the environment: (a) ICT equipment (electricity and energy use, raw         materials and disposal), (b) ICT ‘Smart’ applications, and (c) ICTs and the need for systemic change. According to Vickery, part of the challenge is making these three levels more clearly linked with major areas that are under consideration right now, namely mitigation, adaptation, and technology transfer.

His presentation raises some interesting issues for discussion:

  • How would the climate scenario look like if –at least part of- the 4 billion mobile telephone subscribers play a role in monitoring and documenting the effects of climate change, and in managing the carbon footprint?
  • What type of ‘Green changes’ could ICTs help us foster in our daily lives? What could we do different or more efficiently with the help of these tools?
  • How could we contribute as consumers –and producers- to the three main levels that Vickery points out?

In considering these questions its useful to look at Richard Heeks’ overview model on ‘ICTs, Climate Change and Development’, as it provides further details on the ways in which ICTs can play a role in mitigation, monitoring and adaptation strategies.

All these issues will need to be carefully considered as the global community moves forward from COP15 to COP16 in Mexico 2010. And although new hype, hope and skepticism will continue to surround the process, we need to be better prepared to effectively insert ICTs and its contribution to development into the climate change agenda.

Overview Model of ICTs, Climate Change and Development

The model shown below indicates the various domains of relation between information and communication technologies (ICTs), climate change and development. These are:
– Mitigation: how ICTs can reduce carbon emissions (but also how they contribute)
– Monitoring: how ICTs can help measure and analyse climate change and its impacts
– Strategy: how ICTs can enable strategic actions on climate change
– Adaptation: how ICTs can help developing countries adapt to climate change in the short- and longer-term

This is still a model under development, so comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.