ITU sets out to save the day

Steven Hartley/Ovum
08 Oct 2009

We recently met with Malcolm Johnson, the Director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, to discuss its response to environmental issues. Its first action is to agree on a common methodology to measure carbon emissions. Its second is to encourage the United Nations at its forthcoming climate change conference in Copenhagen to recognize ICT as a facilitator to reduce environmental impact in other sectors.

Until now the ITU could not get its members to agree to CO2 reductions, because a common standard of measurement could not be agreed.

A common methodology for quantifying emissions is absolutely fundamental if the telecoms industry is ever to be held to account. Without it, it’s easy for network operators to hide behind a smokescreen of green verbiage and misleading comparisons – shifting base years, different units of measurements, the inclusion of “savings” already counted elsewhere, and so on.

A standardized method for calculating emissions brings telecoms into line with other industries and enables realistic assessment of the oft-repeated claim that ICT can facilitate more reductions in CO2 even as it increases its own level of activity.

It’s easy to say this is too little, too late; and not wrong given the scale of the climate change problem and the efforts needed to reduce atmospheric CO2 to levels at which civilization can survive. But it is a necessary step for all that.

The second facet of the ITU’s approach is its desire to see the ICT sector (including telecoms) recognized in Copenhagen as a facilitator to ease the impact of climate change in other sectors. The intention is admirable and there is certainly logic to it (see our recent comment Can M2M communications save the planet? for an approach by Vodafone, for example). However, the way it was presented to us was that the environmental agenda was more of a golden commercial opportunity to the industry, rather than a genuine solution to a shared problem.

There is no doubt that the ICT sector can benefit financially from other industries’ need to be more energy-efficient (the currently frequently recurring theme of smart grids springs to mind). Nonetheless, it must not be its sole motivation or the result will be a valid solution being viewed with skepticism in other industries. The telecoms sector, and most importantly those representing it, must be seen as offering solutions to a global problem – not merely hawking their wares to the vulnerable at the first sign of a crisis.

The ITU feels it is leading the industry into a green future. It is proud of the fact that once a common definition is agreed it can start setting targets and that once ICT is “recognized” as a facilitator it can work towards implementation. It’s true that you can only measure what you define and it’s true that ICT has a role in supporting other industries. However, it’s also equally true that the pace of change is frustrating.

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