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Can Communications Satellites Help Fight Climate Change?

Malcolm Johnson Deputy Secretary General Of The Itu
December 29, 2015

Information and communication technology has an important role to play in helping countries meet their climate goals — both from a mitigation and adaptation standpoint as well as in the efforts to reduce e-waste.


Earlier this month in Paris, 195 nations reached an ambitious agreement to combat climate change. While the deal does not explicitly mention information and communication technology (ICT), it is becoming increasingly clear that ICTs will have an important role to play in helping countries meet their climate goals. At the same time, however, ICTs face important sustainability challenges, including e-waste, which last year reached 42 million tons at the global level.

To explore this evolving relationship between ICT and sustainability, Look Ahead sat down with Malcolm Johnson, deputy secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) — the United Nations’ specialized agency for ICT. From 2007 to 2014, Mr Johnson served as director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, where he spearheaded activities in cybersecurity, climate change and accessibility. In this Future scope, he shares with Look Ahead his views on how ICT can help combat climate change, how to address the e-waste challenge and what role technology and innovation can play in connecting the billions of people still lacking access to the Internet.


You’ve attended multiple climate change negotiations. How have negotiators’ views evolved when it comes to the role of ICT in combating climate change?

We first started promoting ICTs at COP15 in Copenhagen. The UNFCCC gave us this fantastic space right on the crossroads between the negotiation rooms. We ran an event every day with industry members, getting high-level speakers to present on how ICTs can help with mitigation and adaptation. We also held bilateral meetings with member states to try to get this message across as well.

It was a struggle because many didn’t even know what ICT was — most negotiators then were from environment ministries. It was a challenge, but we persevered in subsequent COPs.

Six years later, it’s incredible to see how things have changed. People now take it for granted that we can’t do anything without ICTs. Some still come with questions, of course, but the conversation has moved from “What is ICT?” to “How can it help?”


Where will ICT help most in the fight against climate change?

ICT has a big role to play in both mitigation and adaptation. For mitigation, we have a fairly well‑recognized study produced by GeSI known as the SMARTer2030 Report, which estimates that by 2030 you can reduce total greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent through the use of ICTs, particularly in carbon-intensive sectors such as transportation, energy, waste or building construction.

On the adaptation side, a lot of climate monitoring happens through ICT, in particular satellite monitoring of the climate to get better predictions of likely natural disasters, as well as remote monitoring to help with rapid response.

A good example of where ICT can help is water management. It’s estimated that smart water management systems could help save up to 70 percent of water used for irrigation. Egypt, for instance, uses ICT technology to save on the water used for irrigation. But other countries in the Nile basin don’t have the same technology. They may have some that is similar, but it doesn’t interoperate.

This is why we need to have international standards. Not just for those countries but for countries across the world suffering from lack of water. This, in turn, would provide a bigger market for the equipment, which brings down the cost of technology thanks to economies of scale.


ICT at scale can also mean e-waste, however. How do we decouple one from the other?

It’s a major concern, notably for developing countries. There are some terrible pictures of children digging away amongst piles of e‑waste, which is very often toxic. And when it gets burned, there’s terrible pollution from it as well.

We’ve been working on how to identify what metals are in ICT products, and how to go about recycling them. We have developed several standards that are available on the ITU website.

But there’s also a business case, here. 42m tons of e‑waste were dumped last year. If you look at all the precious metals in that waste, such as copper, gold, iron, aluminium, silver and palladium, its estimated worth is €48m. For one ton of gold ore, you get 5 milligrams of gold. For one ton of mobile phones, by contrast, you get 400 milligrams of gold.


How do we go about connecting those still lacking access to ICT and the Internet?

The current statistics are that there are 3.2 billion people online. Two billion of those are in developing countries, and the majority of people now go online through their mobiles. Mobile penetration in developing countries is very, very high. Almost everybody has a mobile. What we’re concentrating on is using this mobile penetration to get people online and benefit from all the services and applications that come with it.

Another interesting area is connectivity through satellite. A few months back, I was taken to a primary school in a village outside of Nairobi, Kenya. The school had access to the Internet via satellite, classrooms had large LCD displays instead of the traditional chalkboard and teachers used online teaching aids for the children.

The satellite company provides all this for free because the school acts as a downlink for the satellite signal. The school then emits WiMAX, which it uses in the classrooms. But because WiMAX has a larger reach than WiFi, people in the village can also make use of the connection—these customers have to pay for the service. In that way the company is getting some return on the investment and the school is benefiting. It’s a very interesting example.


How should we deal with the volume of data traffic that will come with connecting the rest of the world to the Internet?

It’s a challenge, but if you look at the way technology has been responding to this increasing demand, there are reasons to be optimistic. Take video, for instance, which is expected to account for about 75 percent of the traffic on networks by 2020. Most of that video is using an ITU standard called H.264. Last year, ITU adopted an updated standard (H.265). It only uses 50 percent of the bandwidth that H.264 did. So, you’re immediately doubling the capacity. Things have moved quickly over the past years. Even if it’s difficult now to envision how on earth are we going to handle all this data in the future, I’m sure technology will find a way.


Start-ups are a crucial element of the ICT ecosystem. How does ITU engage or plan to engage with them?

This is a good question. Most of the innovation now is coming from start-ups. It used to be academia, but now it’s more start-ups. We were very keen to get academia as part of ITU membership and to some extent we have succeeded, with over 100 universities now ITU academia members. Now we’re very keen to get start-ups and SMEs, too.

Hopefully, we’ll soon be creating a new category of membership for start-ups. Clearly, the membership fee for start-ups will have to be low—much lower than we currently have.

This would enable ITU to bring together start-ups, academia, well-established tech companies and governments. You would then have a great platform where bright start-up companies can come to with their fresh ideas and get the Googles, the Microsofts and the governments of the world to engage and commercialize their ideas. ITU could then provide an international platform for SMEs and innovators coming from emerging economies to develop the standard, help support scale up and connect to new markets.

(Top image: Courtesy of Sean Gallup, Getty Images News)

This piece first appeared in GE Look ahead.


Malcolm_Johnson headshotMalcolm Johnson is Deputy Secretary General of International Telecommunication Union (ITU).




All views expressed are those of the author.