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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Going Green The Smart Way

Increasing broadband penetration can grow our economy in a way that combats climate change

 As climate change negotiations continue at Durban, it is becoming increasingly clear that finding a perfectly democratic and equitable burden-sharing framework is not going to be easy. Views are still too sharply polarised to be amenable to any comprehensive agreement. In such a situation, it would be quite apt on the part of the negotiators to take a fresh look at all possible emission reducing ideas in the light of the evolving technological reality around us. Time is clearly running out. 

    The crux of the problem today lies in the inevitable correlation between economic growth, consumption of energy resources and the consequential emissions. The challenge today obviously lies in finding a new low carbon intensity growth path. Under the circumstances, it makes sense to explore emerging technology areas that can usher in transformational changes in the carbon intensity of growth rather than looking at incremental changes within traditional technology frameworks. 
    I see an enormous opportunity in the shape of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. It can help decouple economic growth and emissions. Governments across the world can accelerate the pace of change in this area by integrating their ICT and climate change strategies. Incremental investment in the sector can deliver exponential returns in terms of emissions reduction. 
According to the 2008 Smart 2020 Study by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, the Climate Group and McKinsey, the ICT sector has the capacity to deliver carbon savings five times greater than the sector's own total emissions, which currently hover at 2-2.5% of total global emissions. The sector's impact is going to be much higher in developing and emerging economies that can simply leapfrog high-emitting technologies with the help of transformative ICT solutions. 
    As we all know, broadband networks help create a 'connected' economy. They transform the way we work and live and in the process deliver a multiplier and 

inclusive effect on the economy. That is to say, these networks not only promote growth but inclusiveness as well. Support for broadband expansion has till date primarily centred around this economic rationale only. The fact that the sector also makes a dramatic impact on the overall carbon intensity of our lives has generally gone unnoticed. 
    We have very simple examples before us in the shape of smart grids, smart buildings, 
smart cities and smart transportation networks which can effect dramatic reductions in emission levels. Take for instance smart grids whereby electricity companies use ICT to reduce losses, prevent outages and provide customers with real-time information to manage their own carbon footprint. According to the World Energy Council, production and use of electricity accounts for 40% of greenhouse gases (GHG) globally. According to the Smart 2020 study, use of smart grids can reduce GHG emissions by 5-9% in the US and cut power needs of electrical supply systems in India by as much as 30%. 
    We have many other examples around us. The national e-governance plan is dematerialising administration around the country by transferring an increasing proportion of government services online, helping reduce consumption of energy. Services 
like e-education, m-health, mbanking, besides making life simpler and easier, also end up reducing the carbon footprint of our lives. Video conferencing is another tool being successfully used by organisations to reduce their per capita employee carbon footprint. According to a CII study on the potential for ICTs to contribute to the National Action Plan on Climate Change, India can achieve savings of up to 450 million tonnes of CO2 per annum from ICT solutions by 2030. Total energy cost savings through ICT could be as high as 2.5% of our GDP. 
    There is an urgent need for governments across the world to expand broadband penetration by adopting long-term national broadband plans based on universal affordability and accessibility. The challenge would, however, lie in connecting this objective to the overall climate 
goals. Developing a comprehensive policy framework would be critical, which can only be achieved by integrating national ICT policies with other policy areas such as energy,health, education and climate change. There is an urgent need to break down the silos that tend to exist between different sectors of the government. Collaboration and integrated decision-making is to be an essential ingredient of success. Cultivating a culture of cocreativity across public, private and non-governmental sectors and industries will be important. 
    Policymakers have to work harder to identify and remove policy and regulatory obstacles currently hindering research and investment in ICT-based infrastructure and low-carbon solutions. Wherever necessary, governments have to reward or incentivise producers and consumers to encourage uptake of ICT solutions. Funding and facilitating scalable pilot projects would be critical to demonstrate feasibility and effectiveness to build a strong case for private investment. 
    Broadband and ICT alone will not be able to solve the climate change problem. But they certainly can be the most powerful driver of change in this area. Innovation in the technology space, combined with the right policies, consumer awareness and supportive market conditions can help overcome this enormous challenge before mankind. 
    The writer is chairman of Bharti Enterprises and commissioner of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development.

It's going to be a long walk to a cleaner economy; best start now


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