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COP15: ICT Needs To Compete Against Alternative Technologies

By Simon Mingay | December 11, 2009 | 0 Comments

If you want to get an insight into the debate around the potential positive & negative impacts of  technology (far beyond ICT, though same basic issue applies) take a look at this press conference. You’ll get the basic message of this group by simply listening to the first panellist, but as the discussion goes on you get some insight into the interconnectedness of social and environmental justice issues from a technocentric worldview position. And of course a small insight into the complexity of  the negotiations given some diverse stakeholder perspectives. The session is not itself anti-technology, it’s basically calling for a technology to be assessed against three criteria before any particular technology is deployed :-

  • Affordability
  • Long term environmental sustainability
  • Social justice


There are a few issues and phrases that caught my attention in this session.

Every technology lobbying group is fighting to get it’s technology mentioned in the draft consolidated text, and of course that includes the ITU ( As the text stands at the moment there are apparently 468 mentions of technology, 100 more than the number of times that mitigation is mentioned. In our technocentric society today, maybe that is not surprising.

The technology referred to in this session is mostly grand scale technologies like biofuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS),  geo-engineering (planetary scale manipulation of the climate).

Whilst climate change is going to need many technologies (and policy and behavioural changes etc),  Information and communication technology (ICT) is in competition with many other technologies.  It is going to need to fight hard to get the attention of policy makers, investors and those ultimately making technology buying decisions. ICT will need investment and money if it is to deliver here. The ITU which represents many players in the industry is shouting and has been effective in getting some attention, but I am not at all sure the industry is putting its back into this. A fear of commitment maybe, a wait and see approach for some certainly. There are some significant players who are not engaged in this process (and I don’t just mean attending COP15). I think the importance of getting the mention in the text is probably overrated, but getting the voice heard is important.

From the assessment Gartner are running at the moment in partnership with WWF, the ICT industry itself is not taking any kind of comprehensive and holistic view on its overall impact on the environment and society . Yes, it has some rough and ready high level assessments of the direct emissions and abatement potential in Smart2020 and a couple of other places. Yes it has some marketing tools. But that’s as far as it goes at the moment.  I don’t think it is just (or even primarily) down to the industry to do the assessment, but it certainly has some level of responsibility. There are many stakeholders, not least policymakers who need to understand some of the direct, indirect, systemic and rebound effects of deployment of ICT in the context of solutions of climate change. But there is little appetite to do so and even fewer frameworks or methods to do it.

However, despite this lack of focus on a more holistic assessment, I am sure that ICT can score very well on those three criteria above, certainly relative to some of the other technologies. The challenge and opportunity for the industry is to prove it and communicate it. And it is in this kind of context that constant referral to Smart2020 seems to fall short. The industry needs to keep up the lobbying, but move onto proof through delivery. measurement and demonstration, and show it represents great value on those 3 criteria relative to other technological choices.

Even if we look at something much more prosaic, one of the areas the industry needs to get much better at is recovering e-waste in the developing world. ICT will play an increasingly important role in achieving low carbon development in the developing world. If ICT wants to score well on “long term sustainability” and “social justice” it has to fix this.

I loved the phrase used in connection with some of the technologies “…fighting fire with gasoline…”. That paints a good picture of the potential challenge in using certain technology. At the moment the ICT industry has limited insight into the gasoline content of its solutions (though it probably has a lot more idea than we have for that of geo-engineering).

The final observation I was both amused by, and shocked by, was the observation by the chair of the panel that at the moment we seem to think it is easier to manage solar radiation than it is to persuade people to use more public transport. A sobering thought to end on.

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