While digital technologies have huge potential to unlock climate solutions, reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the source must always be the top priority, according to panelists at a side meeting during the COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow last month.
The speakers cited contributions like data capture and monitoring, benchmarking, real time energy management, artificial intelligence, and early warning for weather events like severe flooding that can all help address the climate emergency. But beyond incremental improvements to the status quo, they said, real climate progress calls for transformative innovations in meeting basic needs for food, transportation, and heat.
The information and communication technology sector (ICT) is itself a rapidly growing source of emissions and must join in the transition to net zero, the panel added. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), co-sponsor of the event, has developed an “implied road map” to reduce global ICT sector emissions 45% by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050. Standards include responsibility for end-of-life management of technological equipment on the path to a circular economy.
“Digital technology is [one part of] the answer,” said ITU Deputy Secretary General Malcolm Johnson, adding that ICT can help reduce global emissions 15-20%. He said digital solutions can reduce traffic congestion, shift public transit to where it is most needed, and improve the energy performance of buildings.
The ITU and the United Nations are hosting United for Smart Sustainable Cities, a collaborative initiative that sets key performance indicators for participating municipalities. Several speakers emphasized cities’ importance as centres of consumption where half the world’s population now lives, a total that is expected to hit two-thirds or more by 2050.
Massamba Choy of the UN climate secretariat’s Global Innovation Hub said “cities need to go beyond net zero,” with transformative changes that go beyond improvements to existing products and services. That would include reimagining transportation in terms of “mobility as a service,” a concept that includes teleconferencing as an alternative to workplace commuting.
But innovation must fill the gap between the net zero target and what’s currently achievable, Choy said. Digital solutions are necessary but not sufficient: supporting policies, finance, business models, and leadership are all required.
Jordi Peris Blanes of the Mayor’s Office in Valencia, Spain, stressed the need to integrate climate solutions with the goals of inclusion, equity, and social justice.
Valencia is an enthusiastic participant in a European Commission initiative to achieve 100 climate neutral cities by 2030, Blanes said. The communities are meant to be “experimentation and innovation hubs for all cities.” Valencia’s initial focus is on public space, walking, and biking.
Luca Lo Re, a climate policy analyst at the International Energy Agency, outlined ways to accelerate “digitally enabled urban energy transitions.” He noted that urban air conditioning demand is growing as the atmosphere warms, and more efficient solutions aren’t always more expensive.