Zero pollution: How can the EU mobilise ICT-companies to fight climate change?

Zero pollution: How can the EU mobilise ICT-companies to fight climate change?
All new public buildings in the EU will be obliged to have solar panels installed. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Climate change did not stop despite the global economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Does the EU have the green tech solutions to bring about zero pollution? What is needed in Europe and the world to make zero-pollution a reality?

These were the main questions at a hybrid event on Tuesday (8 June) organised by The Brussels Times with the support of Huawei, and with participation of experts and decision makers from international organisations in both the public and private sector.

The webinar was organised as a hybrid event with a physical audience in Brussels and was part of the EU Green Week 2021, which was dedicated to “zero pollution ambition”.

Preventing, mitigating and adapting to climate change requires measures at the global level and world-collaboration in preventing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and pollution across all sectors of the economy. Although carbon emissions temporarily declined by volume due to the lockdowns, emission levels are quickly rebounding.

The EU is a leader in combating climate change through its European Green Deal. With the 2030 Climate Law adopted by the European Parliament in April, in agreement with the Council, the EU aims at cutting carbon emissions by at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, paving the way to achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

This is a substantial increase compared to the previous target of at least 40 %. According to the Commission, it is also in line with the Paris Agreement objective to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5°C.

In this process, tech companies in particular are bound to play an important role in reducing pollution and enabling other actors to fully unleash their emission reduction potential.

“No-one can solve this global challenge alone,” said Abraham Liu, telecommunication company Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU Institutions, at a keynote speech at the event. He is convinced that ICT is increasingly becoming an important enabling component for a greener world and listed five key technologies needed for a zero-carbon future (see box below).

“Europe is Huawei’s second home,” he added. “We have every reason to believe that ICT innovation and green development can become a bridge connecting the two sides of the Eurasian continent, promoting collaboration and cooperation for shared success.”

In another keynote speech, Charlie McConalogue, Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, highlighted the food production revolution in Ireland through “precision agriculture” and described the country as one of the safest food production countries in the world, among others thanks to innovative IT solutions to monitor soil, air and animal farming.

A word of warning was raised by Ilias Iakovidis, Green Digital Transformation Adviser at the European Commission (DG CONNECT). “ICT can make positive contribution in the fight against climate change but not all digitalisation has the same effect. We cannot expect everyone to become an IT-specialist. Digital solutions only work if they meet certain conditions in line with new business models.”

He exemplified with the transport sector where the focus is to manufacture new and more vehicles for private use – such as autonomous and electric vehicles – instead of investing in mobility services and public transport.

Results from live polls during the event

Monika Gail MacDevette, Head of Chemicals & Health at United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), pointed out that while more than 60 % of the global GDP is digitalised, about 45 % of the world population is still disconnected from the internet. She also issued a word of warning against the use of chemicals in the electronics value chain and the illegal disposal of e-waste.

Another example of the use of data in reducing pollution was given by Samantha Burgess, Deputy director of the EU funded Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). C3S compiles an annual climate report and is collecting data from dozens of satellites circling the earth as well as from sensors on-site reporting from the oceans, land, and air around the world.

“The best way to understand both present and future climate risk is reliable, accurate climate data,” she said. “We need data on different types of pollution. You cannot manage what you cannot measure and this is very true for the climate. Unless we understand how our climate is changing and what risks that change may bring, we cannot plan for a climate-resilient future.”

Screenshot from the EU Green Week hybrid event on 8 June 2021

Luis Neves, CEO at Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a global industry initiative working with ICT companies and other stakeholders, presented digital solutions for climate change. GeSI has monitored the carbon footprint of ICT companies and studied mitigation and adaptation potentials with digital technologies in different countries.

In one of its reports, if found that these technologies, if deployed with positive societal impact in mind, will help accelerate progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 22 percent.

Furthermore, by 2030, digital technologies will deliver reductions in carbon emissions equivalent to nearly seven times the size of the growth in the total information and communications technology (ICT) sector emissions footprint over the same period.

“We need the digital sector to make the world a better world,” he summarised but he warned also against the negative impacts of new technologies. Without mentioning a specific technology, he underlined the importance of combining energy and digital technologies.

What technology will have the biggest impact on reducing pollution? “It’s a combination of different solutions that manage to reduce our use of energy and materials,” replied Ilias Iakovidis, the Commission adviser. “I would focus more on materials and worry less about energy where the public and private sectors are well aligned.”

Five key digital technologies according to Huawei

  • Green energy: The proportion of electricity generated by clean energy. “In Europe, we are currently working with our partners to help customers build clean energy generating systems that are primarily based on solar and wind.”
  • Power digitalization: 70% of a large data centers’ total operating costs are spent on electricity. “At Huawei, we are using bits to manage watts to drive the digital transformation of the power industry and help the data centers to save energy by cooling and intelligent optimization technologies.”
  • Green connectivity: The average carbon emission per connection in the ICT industry will drop by 80% in the next five years. These ICT-enabled power savings and carbon emission reductions will help reduce total global carbon emissions by 20% over the next decade.
  • Environmental protection: Collaborating with Rainforest Connection, a non-profit technology start-up that generates real-time data on deforestation activity in tropical rainforests, Huawei has developed a sound monitoring system, “Guardians of Nature”, which collects sound data for AI-powered processing to prevent illegal logging. The system is already in place in 22 nature reserves across 18 countries.
  • Zero-carbon networks: By 2025, energy consumption by global communications sites is expected to reach 66 billion kilowatt hours or about 2% of the world’s total energy consumption. By replacing traditional wireless base stations with outdoor cabinets, their energy efficiency can be increased to 90%.

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