How can waste heat from data centres be converted into heating for homes? How can a broken phone and its precious metals be returned from the desk drawer for servicing or recycling? How can information and communication technologies help in reducing emissions from transport or industry?
These questions are answered in Finland's first climate and environment strategy for the ICT sector published on 9 March 2021. This internationally pioneering strategy sets out the instruments that will reduce the carbon and environmental footprint of the ICT sector and reap the benefits of digitalisation.
"Our goal is clear: Finland is seeking to solve climate problems and provide solutions for the whole world by applying its expertise in information and communication technology," says Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka.
According to the Ministry, there are two aspects to the ICT sector. On the one hand, communication networks, data centres and smart devices consume electricity and materials. The ICT sector consumes an estimated 4-10 per cent of global electric power and gives rise to some 3-5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
On the other hand, the ICT sector has a great deal of potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from other sectors, such as transport. Digital services enable intelligent transport control and make public transport more attractive by streamlining vehicle changes. The coronavirus pandemic has shown in practice how teleworking and teleconferencing can replace passenger transportation.
"Good digital infrastructure and skills enabled Finland to make a smooth conversion of information occupations in 2020 to a world of work that is largely based on virtual meetings. We are now harnessing digitalisation to combat global warming. The strategy supports the goal of achieving carbon neutrality in Finland by the year 2035," Harakka continues.
"This strategy work has brought together a wide range of operators with strong expertise and a desire to promote the environmental friendliness of the ICT sector and boost the favourable environmental impact of digitalisation in other sectors. Finnish operators have an opportunity to take an active role in the international debate that seeks to promote ecologically sustainable digitalisation," says Jarno Ilme, Deputy Director-General of the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom).
Finland's ICT climate and environmental strategy was prepared by a working group that included representatives of businesses, public administration and organisations, together with universities and research institutes. The strategy was finalised at the Ministry of Transport and Communications following a consultation round concerning the final report of the working group, which ended in January 2021.
The strategy includes six objectives and measures to achieve them.
- Improving ICT infrastructure energy efficiency and introducing zero carbon sources of electric power. The design, construction and operation of communication networks must aim for energy efficiency. Much greater use can be made of the surplus heat generated by data centres, thereby reducing the energy generating requirement for heating and its accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. Investments in zero carbon electricity generating will also reduce emissions from the ICT sector.
- Seeking a climate friendly data economy. Data traffic and electricity consumption increase with the rising number of services. The volume of data transmitted on Finland's mobile networks per head of population has grown by well over an order of magnitude in the last decade. The design of software and services must give greater consideration to minimising their energy consumption. There is a need for research, training of specialists, and guidance in service procurement. Cheaper software can require more processing power and hardware capacity, ultimately both wasting resources and becoming more costly over its life span.
- Longer hardware life and recycling of precious metals. The service life of hardware can be extended at the design stage. Consumers must also be advised as to product warranties, software upgrades and recycling. Rare metals are required in the batteries and displays of smartphones and computers. Recycling could be made more efficient, for example by paying a refund when old hardware is returned. The strategy seeks to influence the sustainability of primary material production and the traceability of materials in Finland and the European Union.
- An overview of the environmental impacts of digitalisation. The lack of transparent, centralised and available data on the climate and environmental impacts of the ICT sector is a challenge both nationally and internationally. Comparable data is needed on the carbon footprint of the ICT sector and on how information and communication technologies can help to reduce emissions in other sectors.
- Making consumers aware of environmental impacts. Consumer behaviour substantially affects the environmental impact of the ICT sector. Consumers are interested in the carbon footprint of the services that they use, and in their opportunities to influence this footprint. Access to information must be improved through various channels, ranging from school education to consumer campaigns.
- Use of emerging technologies in climate work and environmental protection. Artificial intelligence, robotics, automated systems and other new technologies are raising hopes that they will provide solutions to climate and environmental problems. For example, artificial intelligence has already begun helping to reduce the energy and material consumption of various processes. Attention must also be paid to the energy and material consumption that is involved in developing new technologies.
According to the Finnish government, this new strategy "will be implemented by a wide range of parties, both public and private." The Ministry of Transport and Communications and the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency (Traficom) will monitor its implementation in cooperation with stakeholders and an annual forum will be arranged to support this process.