Critical times: impact of digitalization on climate change

10 Dec 2021 08:30h - 10:00h

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The Eco Internet Index study produced by DotAsia looks at the carbon footprint of internet activities, such as the number of trees killed by watching videos online. The study first looked into internet usage patterns in pairs of countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, Australia and Japan, and India and China. The study shows that no matter how big the carbon footprint of the internet is, it replaces a larger carbon footprint. For example, although we may use Zoom a great deal to attend meetings, in comparison to flying to attend a conference, its carbon footprint is rather small. In addition, the study looks at how internet usage contributes to the economy. It compares the grid emission factor, which is the carbon footprint per kilowatt of electricity generated, with the network capacity.  For example, although India has a large carbon footprint, a large part of its economy is digital; whereas in Hong Kong, the grid emission factor is a very small part of the digital economy.  The grid emission factor in Hong Kong and Singapore is relatively low. Users should become more carbon-conscious, and understand that using the internet has environmental consequences.  Policy directives could encourage cleaner energy for the network infrastructure. Another study from the Asian Energy Study Center focuses on smart energy transitions enabled by smart grid developments as promising solutions to climate change. A smart grid integrates ICT information and communication and technology into conventional energy systems. On the demand side, management might install smart sensors in a home to monitor real-time energy consumption with an app and reschedule the time of energy consumption from peak time to off-peak time. On the supply side, an app could decentralise conventional centre energy systems through increasing use of renewable energy, like rooftop solar panels. However, with a smart grid, data trust is essential. It is therefore necessary to contemplate what data is held, how it is stored, and who can access it. Privacy issues related to smart meters are very real issues that governments have to address. The Alliance for Affordable Internet analysed the national broadband plan for 70 countries to understand ICT issues and internet issues with respect to the environment. In interconnected countries, considerable power is consumed to increase access in rural and remote areas. The world needs to focus on sustainable access in its bid to connect the next billion people to the internet. However, as more users get online, the energy cost per user will shrink. Share networks and infrastructure can also help reduce the carbon footprint. Policymakers have decisions to make right now, either to act now or to wish that they had acted five years in the future, because the most cost-effective way to reduce the internet’s carbon footprint is to do it earlier rather than later.   Likewise, the IGF should include more discussions on climate change and the internet. Projects like the Eco study can become a framework and can be extended to other nations as well. Collaborations will also enable data transparency and standardisation, thus leading to a stronger analysis. Better sharing of the network capacity and data would help.  When we are looking at developing countries, people often think that there is an opposition between creating a better internet and better opportunities, and saving the environment. But, in fact, what is required is finding a balance to move forward in the optimal way with cooperation of public and private sectors. By Mili Semlani

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