IT has the power to green the world

Applying smart technology to various sectors could yield huge cost and carbon savings

Don't underestimate the potential impact that ICT (information and communications technology) can have on fighting global warming while saving organizations money. A recently released report titled "SMART 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age" says that ICT could help cut global greenhouse gases 15 percent and save up to $946 billion by 2020.

The report, conducted by the Climate Group on behalf of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, shows that ICT's own global carbon footprint will almost double by 2020, but that the technology has the potential to help other sectors of the economy cut CO2 emissions by up to five times this amount -- not to mention associated costs. This represents a global saving of 7.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) by 2020 -- greater than the current annual emissions of either the United States or China.

The SMART 2020 report outlines five major opportunities for ICT-enabled solutions to drive emissions savings:

Smart logistics: Smart logistics, according to the report, comprise a range of software and hardware tools that monitor, optimize, and manage operations, helping to reduce the storage needed for inventory, fuel consumption, miles driven, and frequency of vehicles traveling empty or partially loaded.

Through a host of efficiencies in transport and storage, smart logistics in Europe, for example, could deliver fuel, electricity, and heating savings of 225 Mt (million tons) CO2e. The global emissions savings from smart logistics in 2020 would reach 1.52 GtCO2e, with energy savings worth $441.7 billion, according to the report.

[ Learn how the U.S. Postal Service saved more than $5 million using smart technology. ]

Smart grids: A smart grid is a set of software and hardware tools that enable generators to route power more efficiently, reducing the need for excess capacity and allowing two-way, real-time information exchange with their customers for real-time DSM (demand-side management).

As an example of its potential, reducing transmission and distribution losses in India's power sector by 30 percent is possible through better monitoring and management of electricity grids, first with smart meters and then by integrating more advanced ICTs into the so-called energy Internet. Smart grid technologies were the largest opportunity found in the study and could globally reduce 2.03 GtCO2e, worth $124.6 billion.

[ Learn more about smart grids by reading "Power delivery, the smart way." ]

Dematerialization: Using technology to dematerialize the way people work and operate, replacing high-carbon physical products and activities (like books and meetings) with virtual low-carbon equivalents (e-commerce/e-government and videoconferencing) could deliver a global reduction of 0.5 GtCO2e in 2020, according to the report.

Within the report, the largest opportunity identified within dematerialization is teleworking: Based on historic trends, the analysis found that teleworking would have the largest impact, up to 260 MtCO2e savings each year.

[ Learn about the various benefits of telecommuting by reading "Sun, employees find big savings from Open Work telecommuting program." ]

Smart buildings: The term "smart buildings" describes a suite of technologies used to make the design, construction, and operation of buildings more efficient These might include BMSes (building management systems) that run heating and cooling systems according to occupants' needs or software that switches off all PCs and monitors after people have left, according to the report.

A closer look at buildings in North America indicates that better building design, management, and automation could save 15 percent of North America's buildings emissions. Globally, smart buildings technologies would enable 1.68 GtCO2e of emissions savings, worth $340.8 billion.

Smart motor systems: A review of manufacturing in China has identified that without optimization, 10 percent of China's emissions (2 percent of global emissions) in 2020 will come from China's motor systems alone and that to improve industrial efficiency even by 10 percent would deliver up to 200 MtCO2 equivalent savings. Applied globally, optimized motors and industrial automation would reduce 0.97 GtCO2e in 2020, worth $107.2 billion.

The potential green benefits of information and communications technology doesn't end there. The Boston Consulting Group prepared an addendum to the SMART 2020 report showing that IT-enabled solutions could cut annual CO2 emissions in the United States by 13 to 22 percent from business-as-usual projections in 2020. This translates to a gross energy and fuel savings worth $140 to $240 billion -- equivalent to a reduction in oil consumption of 11 to 21 percent and a cut in oil imports of 20 to 36 percent.

The U.S. Addendum describes four main opportunities. First, a smart electrical grid built on better information and communication could reduce CO2 emissions 230 to 480 million metric tons (MMT), and save $15 to $35 billion in energy and fuel costs.

Second, more efficient road transportation could reduce travel time and congestion, eliminating 240 to 440 MMT of CO2 emissions and saving $65 to $115 billion.

Third, smart buildings that consume less energy could save 270 to 360 MMT of CO2 and save $40 to $50 billion.

Finally, travel substitution such as virtual meetings and flexible work arrangements could reduce CO2 by 70 to 130 MMT and save $20 to $40 billion.

As both reports highlight, in many cases the technology to achieve these savings already exists. However, economic, behavioral and informational challenges continue to stand in the way of realizing these gains, and markets have thus far been slow in adopting them. Achieving these reductions will therefore require more consistent and clearly defined government policy to speed progress.

The full report "SMART 2020: enabling the low carbon economy in the information age" and the U.S. Addendum can be downloaded at