Ecologically sustainable digitalisation contributes to climate targets – six themes to reduce ICT sector’s carbon footprint and make use of digital solutions
Finland has pioneered the comprehensive review of climate and environmental issues in the ICT sector. The working group preparing the climate and environment strategy for the ICT sector has brought together six themes to reduce the carbon and environmental footprint of the sector and to make full use of the benefits of digitalisation. Comments on the group's final report are invited nationally by 15 January 2021.
Communication networks, data centres and smart devices consume electricity and materials, but on the other hand, digital solutions decrease greenhouse gas emissions in many sectors. It is the working group's vision that by 2035 Finland will be a leader in using and developing ecologically sustainable ICT solutions and will promote climate and environment-friendly digitalisation outside Finland's national borders, too.
"Climate change mitigation requires swift and ambitious measures. The report that was now published is unique by international standards. It contains globally pioneering proposals to deploy the green potential of the ICT solutions in Finland, the European Union and worldwide. Transport is one of the sectors that could benefit from digitalisation in the efforts to achieve the emissions reductions," says Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka.
Six themes to control the climate impacts and to promote the benefits in the ICT sector
The working group's final report includes six sets of measures on climate and environmental impacts in the ICT sector.
1. Higher energy efficiency of the ICT infrastructure and carbon-free sources of electricity
Improving the energy efficiency of communications networks plays a key role, as their greatest environmental impact comes from their in-use energy consumption. For example, around 93% of carbon dioxide emissions from mobile networks are generated during their use.
According to the working group, the use of energy efficient solutions and carbon-free electricity sources must be promoted. A wide range of investments in emission-free electricity production will reduce emissions in the ICT sector, too. In waste heat recovery, there is room for improvement. The heat generated as a by-product of data centres and similar facilities could be utilised more, which would reduce the need for heating energy production and so decrease carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, data centres have the potential to operate in the electricity market using the electricity they store in batteries.
2. Data economy
As the amount of data increases, electricity consumption will also grow. The infrastructure and improved energy efficiency of equipment alone are not sufficient to respond to the growth in consumption. Environmental aspects have not yet been widely taken into account in the planning of software and ICT services. There is a need for research, training of experts, and guidance in service procurement. For example, software with an inexpensive purchase price can require more processing power and equipment capacity and, ultimately, waste resources and also become costly.
An important aspect in data economy is how solutions with climate and environmental challenges are developed further and implemented. This should be widely taken into account in education and training. Ways to find solutions through competitions, for instance, should also be encouraged. In order to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU encourages investments that combine digitalisation and environmental solutions.
3. Maintenance and circulation of ICT equipment
According to a consumer survey conducted by the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, Finns are familiar with environmental issues related to ICT equipment. For example, the reason for buying a new phone is not attraction of novelty but almost 80% of Finns acquire a new phone to replace a broken one or for some other similar reason.
Consumers and businesses may extend the life span of equipment, for example by using maintenance services. According to the working group, consumers' awareness of product guarantees and software updates must be increased. Although Finns are fairly familiar with the environmental aspects of equipment, there are shortcomings in delivering them for recycling. Recycling could be improved by means of financial incentives, such as compensation for the return of old equipment.
Almost all ICT equipment used in Finland are manufactured abroad. However, the raw materials used in the equipment, such as nickel and cobalt, are produced in Finland. According to the working group, influence must be exerted on the sustainability of production and traceability of raw materials in Finland and the EU.
4. More efficient measurement and open data on environmental impacts
The lack of transparency and availability of information on the climate and environmental impacts of the ICT sector is a challenge at national and international levels. In contrast to emissions from transport, for example, it is difficult to obtain an overview of the full impacts of the sector.
According to the working group, the emissions monitoring and statistics of energy consumption in data centres and networks must be developed. Information on the impacts and rebound effects of digital solutions during their life cycle is also needed. In this area, new research and assessment activities are starting. Data streams and ICT equipment material streams are transnational in nature and that is why it is important to contribute to the development of monitoring also on EU and international levels.
5. Increasing consumer awareness and climate-friendly skills
According to a survey by the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency addressed to telecom operators, about 90% of the data transfer in the mobile communications network in Finland goes through private subscriber connections. Consumer behaviour plays an important role in managing the environmental impacts of the ICT sector's use stage. A large number of Finns are interested in receiving more information on the climate and environmental impacts of ICT equipment and services, says the consumer survey carried out by the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency in 2020.
The working group recommends that information on climate-friendly use of ICT services and equipment be shared by means of education, training and various digital skills projects and campaigns.
6. Opportunities and challenges of new technologies
Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, provide great opportunities to increase climate and environmental friendliness. The impacts do not come about by themselves. Not only research information but also conscious development of technologies that save resources is needed.
The Ministry of Transport and Communications appointed a working group for the period 1 November 2019-30 November 2020 to prepare a climate and environment strategy for the information and communication technology sector (ICT sector). Aalto University, ABB Oy, CSC - IT Center for Science Ltd, Digita Oy, DNA Oyj, Elisa, Finnish Energy, Energy Authority, Finnish Federation for Communications and Teleinformatics (FiCom), Finnet Association, Oy IBM Finland Ab, Consumers' Union of Finland, Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, Transport and Communications Agency (TrafiCom), Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology, Neogames Finland, Finnish Software and E-business Association, Nokia Oyj, Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, Helsinki Metropolitan Smart & Clean Foundation, Technology Industries of Finland, Telia, Tieto Corporation, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, Ministry of Finance, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd, Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) and Ministry of the Environment.
Comments on the final report are invited nationally by 15 January 2021. Finland's first climate and environment strategy for the ICT sector will be finalised at the Ministry of Transport and Communications in February 2021. The strategy will be made available in English.
Requests to interview Minister Timo Harakka: Communications Director Susanna Niinivaara, tel. +358 400 816 187, susanna.niinivaara(at)lvm.fi
Päivi Antikainen, Director of Unit, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 50 382 7101, paivi.antikainen(at)lvm.fi, Twitter @PaiviAntikainen
Tuuli Ojala, Senior Specialist, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 50 563 8130, tuuli.ojala(at)lvm.fi, Twitter @OjalaTuuli
Jarno Ilme, Deputy Director General, Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, tel. +358 29 539 0574, jarno.ilme(at)traficom.fi, Twitter @IlmeJarno