The communication from the commission “on mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy” is one of the most sophisticated low carbon documents that I have seen from the commission, ever. It is really a significant step towards a serious strategy that can deliver more than incremental improvements. Obviously it has a number of shortcomings, but after all the internal compromises that these documents must go through it feels like a reasonable coherent document with a lot of potential.
Obviously the thing that really matters is the recommendation due in the second half of 2009 that ”will set out tasks, targets and timelines, for industry stakeholders and Member States to accelerate progress towards these ends.”
It is worth noting that compared to many other ICT strategies, including almost all member states, this sets a new standard with sucha clear focus on the 98% and the role of ICT as an enabler. Congratulation to those involved.
Taking a step back and look at the development I can’t help but note that this is very far from the reactions I got when I published the book ”Saving the planet at the speed of light” almost 10 years ago. Even when Katalin Szomolanyi and I wrote the roadmap for EU in 2006 ”Saving the climate at the speed of light” in the joint WWF-ETNO project the reaction and support from the commission was quite vague. Now it finally looks as if things could take off.
There is a lot to like in this. Below the key parts [The full PDF can be downloaded here]
FIRST “The ICT sectors own footprint”: not the most important, but must dealt with so good to include (and not spend a lot of time on).
SECOND “working partnerships between the ICT sector and other major energy-using
Sectors”: Here it would be good to develop a list with priority areas. It is especially important to ensure that a service perspective is guiding the actions and not a focus on existing sectors. While ICT can play a significant role in relation to transport and buildings, it is not just the car industry and the building industry where collaboration is needed. Flexiwork/telewok can help reduce Co2 emissions from both the transport and building industry, but these sectors will not drive this development. Especially the car industry is important to challenge, as they so far have been reluctant to move from a product to a service perspective.
THIRD “Member States should be called upon to enable the EU-wide roll-out of ICT tools
likely to trigger a shift in the behaviour of consumers, businesses and communities and at
the same time drive demand for innovative ICT solutions to optimise the energy
performance of their own operations.” This is probably the most interesting area and it is here we could see groundbreaking initiatives in m-government, m-health, m-education, m-business, etc. This would be especially interesting if we see new tools beyond current sectors that encourage a high quality resource efficient lifestyle and support new start-up companies that provide these kinds of innovative solutions.
A good division and it is important to keep them apart. The second and third will be a challenge, but I’m sure all of us working with this are willing to support if there is an opportunity.
2. Clear focus on buildings and transport (two areas where ICT can make a real difference)
There is a tendency in the communication to look at the incremental improvements (where a building can be more efficient and where logistics can be improved). These are important, but it is important to move beyond current sectors. If not we will only see a few smart meters and some logistic initiatives. These kinds of solutions can actually result in increased emissions over time as they don’t help us move beyond our current inefficient infrastructure.
3. A challenge to the ICT industry to develop methodologies that can measure the benefits.
It is just to agree with the commission:
”In the absence of a means by which consumers, whether individuals, businesses or public
administrations, can verify and compare potential energy-saving strategies offered by ICTs
and their cost effectiveness, the threat that so-called greenwashing will take market share
from solutions that offer legitimate benefits is very real.”
This is a real challenge to those companies that are really serious. But also for the initiatives/projects that are developing reporting standards. In both cases the support for a scientific methodology that can calculate the positive contributions from ICT have been less positive than it should… Hopefully this will change.
4. “Urban planning strategies incorporating end 2010 energy efficiency and carbon emissions”
This could become one of the most important part for EU, but only if a global and transformative perspective (that look beyond incremental improvements) can be included and where solutions are encouraged that can be exported/used in other parts of the world (especially the emerging markets).
5. Software innovations
I’m very happy to see that the commission includes a discussion about software companies writing that “There are roughly half a million software businesses in the EU. Typically employing 3 to 7 persons, these businesses have one of the highest levels of productivity and profitability of all sectors of the economy”. I have suggested an annual competition where ”code of the year” was given a prize. I think there is a huge untapped potential in software companies and look forward to more concrete initiatives in this area.
A few things could improve below is a list of areas that I hope we will see in the recommendations, most of these already exist in the communication but needs to be clarified. Especially in order to ensure that this process end up in the same innovation hostile straightjacket that so often seem to be the end result in well intended processes in Europe. Some of these have been developed in more details earlier, see for example the following document that I wrote for WWF together with Ewa Thorslund from the association of Swedish IT companies for the Swedish government:
1. Clear responsibility
Too often new initiatives fall flat, as they don’t fit in existing structures. Many countries have conducted studies and looked into the potential of ICT as an enabler. Then when it comes to implementation nothing (or very very little) happens. The commission must not make this mistake.
2. Separate the 2% from the 98% even more
The distinction between Green IT/2%/IT’s own emissions and Greening with IT/98%/IT’s ability to help reduce the emissions in society is still not clear enough and
the enabling capacity of ICT is not dealt with in a systematic way. The focus on transport and buildings is good, but a strategy must go further to ensure that the really innovative solutions are allowed to get support. It is not a significant problem for this communication, but for a strategy it is very important to separate the two so that no confusion can emerge regarding targets and resources.
3. Frame the recommendation within the concepts of “low- and high carbon feedback” or “20th century and 21st century infrastructure”
One of the major challenges with ICT is that it can deliver significant short-term reductions that can lock us in a high carbon infrastructure unless the feedback from the investments results in further reductions. Logistic improvements can make single vehicles a lot more efficient, but the result is often that the total amount of vehicles increases. Increased flexiwork can result in dramatic reduction of commuting and office space, but can also result in more flying.
Even more interesting is that many ICT investments can trigger further reductions, but this will only happen if a supporting framework exists. Keep your eyes open as a new report will come next week that describe this in detail for virtual meeting and teleworking. It will be posted here as soon as it is public.
4. Global perspective
The commission focus is obviously EU, but the need for smart solutions is global, and the need to ensure economy of scale and accelerated reductions of CO2 emissions require us to think global and to develop global strategies. Many of the leading ICT companies also work global
5. Trade/innovation perspective
I would like to see a chapter that include a concrete strategy to encourage trade (export and import of low carbon ICT solutions)
Let’s hope that communication can translate into concrete action.
I hope that Sweden can move to the forefront in this area and support this work during the presidency and the climate meeting in Copenhagen where IT and other solution sectors could be supported to move to the front of the discussion.