IT sector could falter if carbon targets imposed

The IT industry could struggle to keep expanding by 2020 if it doesn’t move to much more energy-efficient technologies as limits are imposed on carbon emissions.

A team at Rice University and the Institute for Sustainable and Applied Infodynamics (ISAID) in Singapore compiled figures from various government and industry sources to discover how much money is generated by the ICT industry for every kilogram of carbon dioxide emitted.

It found that carbon emissions are set to grow twice as fast as the sector’s contributions to gross domestic product over the next decade.

“In the US in 2009, the economic output of the ICT industry per kilogram of CO2 emitted was about $2.83, and in a business-as-usual scenario, that output will fall to about $1.06 per kilogram of CO2 by 2020,” said co-author Chris Bronk at Rice.

“Based on those numbers, the industry is headed for a brick wall if limits are placed on CO2 emissions.”

The team looked at the number of various devices that are in use today, how much energy they consume and how that consumption is likely to be affected by expected growth in demand.

Because IT devices don’t emit CO2 themselves, but instead use commercially-produced electricity, they factored in the effect of cleaner, more efficient electric production technologies that will be rolled out in the coming decade.

The United Nations has recommended that CO2 emissions globally should be capped at 14.5 gigatonnes. The US currently accounts for a little under a fifth of this. If that proportion remained the same under a UN cap, either technology use would have to stop increasing or something else would have to give.

“With this ceiling, the contributions from the ICT sector will be limited to $561.99 billion dollars by 2020 and would not grow past this amount starting mid-2014,” says the report.

Globally, says the team, the situation looks bad. Worldwide carbon emissions related to PCs and laptops - which accounted for nearly half all global ICT emissions in 2009 - will quadruple by 2020.

Datacentre-related emissions will more than triple, and the team calculates that emissions related to both game consoles and mobile phones will more than triple by 2020, although these will still amount to less than a twentieth of total ICT emissions by 2020.

One of the world’s largest users of datacentres, Facebook, has recently come under fire from Greenpeace for its high carbon emissions.

A spokeswoman claimed the company never commented on third party research, but said that new technologies were improving efficiency all the time.

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