The two faces of the ICT sector: consuming energy and materials while also paving the way to a carbon-neutral society

Ministry of Transport and Communications
Publication date 15.6.2020 9.40
Press release
Picture: Ministry of Transport and Communications
Picture: Ministry of Transport and Communications

ICT can deliver substantial environmental benefits by replacing products with services, through telecommuting, and in streamlining manufacturing processes. On the other hand, communication networks, data centres and smart devices require electric power and materials, and are also a source of greenhouse gas emissions. The recently published report of a Ministry of Transport and Communications working group describes the environmental and climate impacts of the ICT sector in Finland.

"Our society is digitising, and so we must strengthen environmental awareness and the adoption of energy-conscious solutions. Finland is doing pioneering work to realise sustainable information technology, and Finnish businesses have a great deal to offer in developing energy-efficient technology. Both the environmental expertise and the digital leap skills of the ICT sector are now in demand," says Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka.

"ICT is an integral part of modern society and an effective instrument in work to mitigate climate change, but we must also pay attention to rising consumption of energy and materials in the sector," explains Päivi Antikainen of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, who chaired its working group to develop a climate and environmental strategy for the ICT sector.

The broadly-based working group is engaged in pioneering work of its own, as this is the first comprehensive review of the sector's environmental impact to be prepared in Finland. Corresponding studies are also rare in other countries. Information on the environmental impacts of the ICT sector is fragmented and partly inconsistent.

The power source determines greenhouse gas emissions

Electric power consumption is the principal cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the ICT sector, which uses 4-10 per cent of the world's electricity and generates 1.5-5 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions, according to various estimates.

The power consumption of the sector in Finland is quite moderate by global standards. The ICT sector has only a minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions in Finland, as most of the nation's electricity supply has been decarbonised. The ICT sector services used in Finland nevertheless also cause emissions outside the country, as a substantial part of these services come from foreign suppliers.

Thanks to improved energy efficiency, ICT sector electric power consumption has not risen in proportion to data volumes. For example, some highly energy-efficient data centres have been designed and constructed in Finland in recent years, with active measures taken to use the surplus heat that they release.

Data volumes are nevertheless growing rapidly. Forecasts suggest a nearly fourfold increase in global Internet traffic over the period from 2017 to 2022. Even though Finnish mobile networks cut the average energy consumption of data transmission by more than 80 per cent between 2014 and 2018, this coincided with a more than sixfold increase in the volume of data exchanged on those networks by the end of this period. Greater volumes of data are now being processed with the proliferation of new technologies and applications, such as artificial intelligence, making energy efficiency an important factor to consider and accommodate.

Electronic waste does not recycle

Decommissioned electronic equipment is the world's fastest growing waste type, increasing by nearly 7 per cent annually. Smart devices, such as computers and phones, are rapidly replaced with low recycling rates. Even the recovery rate of rare earth metals is estimated at only one per cent.

Though terminal device manufacturing is minimal in Finland, the country has mineral resources such as cobalt and lithium that are of interest to industry in the sector. Demand for these resources has grown not only due to the proliferation of ICT equipment, but also with increased manufacturing of electric motor vehicles and other products.

ICT reduces emissions from other sectors

ICT has an enabling role as Finland works towards a carbon-neutral society. Finnish solutions also have significant export potential.

The benefits of ICT are often indirect. For example, weather-dependent renewable energy generating, such as wind and solar power, could not be exploited on a large scale without ICT-based solutions. Projects based on ICT and local generating of clean energy, such as solar panel installations, have also been completed in Finland to enable substantial double-digit percentage reductions in the energy purchasing requirements of households and commercial properties.

Electrification of road traffic plays a key role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport. Climate-conscious charging of hundreds of thousands of electric motor vehicles nevertheless requires the kind of ICT-optimised charging infrastructure that Finnish businesses are also now developing.

ICT also plays an important role in the study of climate change and the state of the environment, for example modelling of the environmetal change. Intelligent devices are increasingly used for monitoring compliance with environmental standards. One example of these devices is a smart buoy developed in Finland that is already measuring sulfur emissions in the country's south-western archipelago.

The role of consumers

While the use of terminal devices and data does not account for a particularly large component in the carbon footprint of consumers compared to such factors as domestic heating and mobility, the disparities between individual consumers may nevertheless be substantial. A consumer's carbon footprint depends on the connections, devices and services in use. Watching high-definition video on a large-screen device over a mobile connection consumes significantly more energy than listening to music on a small, low-power device connected to a fixed network. Consumers need information on the effects of using services, and guidance on equipment recycling.

What next?

The working group to develop a climate and environmental strategy for the ICT sector will continue formulating recommendations based on its interim report. The final report of the working group will be published in November 2020.

The working group includes representatives from Aalto University, ABB Oy, the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, the Consumers' Union of Finland, CSC-IT Center for Science Ltd, Digita Oy, DNA Plc, Elisa Corporation, the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries, the Finnet Association, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), the Finnish Energy Authority, Finnish Energy Industries, the Finnish Federation for Communications and Teleinformatics (FiCom), the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, the Finnish Software and E-business Association, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom), Helsinki Metropolitan Smart & Clean Foundation, Oy IBM Finland Ab, LUT University, the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the Ministry of the Environment, the Ministry of Finance, the Neogames Finland Association, Nokia Corporation, Telia Company Ab, Tieto Finland Oy and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd.

For further details, please contact:

Päivi Antikainen, Director of Unit, Ministry of Transport and Communications, tel. +358 50 382 7101, paivi.antikainen(at), Twitter @PaiviAntikainen

Tuuli Ojala, Senior Specialist, Ministry of Transport and Communications, p. +358 50 563 8130, tuuli.ojala(at), Twitter @OjalaTuuli

Jarno Ilme, Director, Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom), p. +358 29 539 0574, jarno.ilme(at), Twitter @IlmeJarno