The Virtual World’s Footprints in the Real World

Remarks at Session II: Corporate responsibility: Towards a climate-neutral ICT Sector


By Kenneth Cukier

Japan business correspondent, The Economist

 

ICTs and Climate Change Symposium

Organized by the International Telecommunication Union and

The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications

Kyoto, Japan - 15 April 2008

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Good afternoon. It is an honor to be here today among so many distinguished speakers and delegates for this important meeting on a critical issue that affects us all.

 

Eleven years ago in this very conference hall, governments around the world met and agreed to an historic accord: the Kyoto Protocol.

 

Looking back on it today, one of the most distinguishing features that characterizes the agreement is that it was governments -- nations -- which came together. Although industry was present in the process (by feeding information and views to their national delegations), it was governments which sat at the table.

 

Indeed, in the history of climate change, there have been three main stages, which offer very revealing trends. Initially, climate change issues were dominated by academics and civil society groups. Business largely resisted the warnings. Then, governments took on the issue and discussed the matter (as witnessed in the 1997 “UN Framework Convention on Climate Change” negotiated in these very halls). Industry was still skeptical and in some cases unwilling to admit to the reality of environmental damage.

 

Yet after the scientists and government officials, a third force has emerged in recent years: the business community. This has led to a major shift in the debate, in which the private sector is in some ways out ahead of governments on the issue.

 

This fact hit home to be personally last month, when I was discussing the issue of climate change with Theodore Roosevelt IV. His great-grandfather, America’s 26th president, governed at the turn of the last century, and was considered a great environmentalist of his day. He designated federal land as national parks and nature preserves, and stressed the value of conservationism. (Though cynics might note that he did so somewhat out of self-interest: Teddy Roosevelt was a great hunter, from which the term “Teddy Bear” derives).

 

Today his great-grandson and namesake is a banker at Lehman Brothers, responsible for the firm’s activities in regards to climate change, such as carbon trading. In essence, Lehman is making a business of climate change -- it wants to turn the issue into an area where the market can play a role, and financial incentives can act. This underscores the degree to which industry understands that the environmental issues are real, and that the way to address it is through the market.

 

For the technology and telecoms industries specifically, it is an irony that a sector that is “virtual” is itself a major contributor to carbon emissions that harm the environment. The ICT industries account for between 2%-3% of energy consumption globally.

 

At the same time, however, it is clear that ICTs represent the indispensable tools that the world must harness to address climate change: from monitoring the situation to mitigating the problems. According to one study, for every extra kilowatt-hour of electricity that is used by IT devices, the US economy increases its overall energy savings by a factor of about ten. Strikingly, the world simply could not hope to address the challenge of climate change without the processing power, access to information, or collaboration and innovation that computers, the internet and telecoms make possible.

 

Yet what brings us together over the next two days is a recognition that the industry must go beyond understanding its role in monitoring and mitigating climate change, and take steps to reduce its own energy consumption. This must happen in two areas. First in businesses own operations (such as the positive examples of companies like Vodafone that have decreased their carbon footprint by using video-conferencing technology rather than air travel). Second, industry must reduce its energy consumption of the products it sells to users.

 

The good news is that this is already starting to happen. Firms are developing new products that are energy efficient, such as wireless thermostats and sensors so that appliances and electronics use less electricity. The semiconductor industry has made enormous strides in developing powerful chips that consume less energy and produce less heat (thus saving the energy otherwise needed on air-conditioning to cool the computers). And data centres are becoming more efficient.

 

It marks an important appreciation by the IT and telecoms sectors of the responsibilities it has in regards to climate change. Indeed, today’s panelists are well suited to addresses these issues. Let me introduce them in the order in which they will speak:

 

- Mr Mitsuo Kobayashi, Manager, Corporate Environment Affairs, Asia-Pacific, IBM (Japan)

- Mr Dave Faulkner, ITU-T Study Group 15 Q2/15 rapporteur, BT (UK)

- Mr Tetsuo Takemura, Corporate Officer, Global Business, Information & Telecommunication Systems, Hitachi, Ltd. (Japan)

- Mr Atsuhisa Takahashi, President, Corporate Environmental Affairs Unit, Fujitsu Ltd. (Japan)

- Ms Joanna Gordon, World Economic Forum (Switzerland)

 

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