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Emissions avoided by digitalization may be 11x greater than technology’s own footprint.

Technology’s hidden handprint

You can’t always see it, but it’s there

By Dr. René Arnold, VP Public Affairs Strategy, Huawei

The term carbon handprint was first officially used at a UNESCO conference in 2007. Anders Andrae, a Huawei researcher in Stockholm, was among the first to popularize the term, which refers to the indirect, positive effect of digitalization on carbon emissions across businesses and society.

That positive effect is significant: Andrae estimates that the emissions avoided by digitalization are roughly 11 times greater than technology’s direct carbon footprint.

Some of these effects are obvious. Just think of the number of video calls you’ve been on in the past two years, and how many miles of travel they probably saved. In the same vein, digital sensors that prevent unnecessary heating or lighting in buildings eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

But the world is full of other, more subtle examples of digitalization’s carbon handprint. Huawei collaborated with Germany’s Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy to develop a series of reports shedding light on just what they were.

Digital, down on the farm
If asked to think of an industry that's highly digitized, you might not immediately think of agriculture. But digital innovation has entered farms around the world. Farmers use aerial imaging in conjunction with image recognition algorithms to optimize fertilizer and water use, reducing nitrogen residue by 30% to 50%.

Tractors and other farm machinery equipped with sensors move across fields almost autonomously today. Precise routing alone can cut fuel usage by 17%. Meanwhile, sensors can reduce pesticide use by up to 80%. And farming is seeing a shift from larger machinery to smaller autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) or robots, which use less energy.

In cities, Building Information Modeling (BIM) helps urban planners design energy-efficient skyscrapers and subways by creating digital models of real-world objects. Tests can be run on those models before the real-world twins are built, allowing engineers to test the energy consumption of streetlights, water systems, and other vital bits of urban infrastructure before they are constructed. Ideally, cities would be designed this way from the outset, but significant improvements can also be retrofitted in many places – for example, adding capacity to existing public transport systems, thereby supporting a shift away from individual car use.

Circular reasoning
The same principle can be applied to a “circular economy” designed to minimize businesses’ impact on the environment. In such an economy, waste is re-purposed or eliminated from the manufacturing process entirely, reducing flows of physical materials and their associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Digitalization goes full circle here. During product development, computer-aided design (CAD) optimizes material use at the start of the production cycle. Additive manufacturing, whose best-known application is 3D printing, allows for efficient production in small batches. This enables manufacturers to create tailored replacement parts, enabling otherwise impossible repairs and extending the useful life of a piece of equipment while minimizing waste.

Data analytics can be used to better plan and forecast material requirements, production volumes, and shipping capacity. By better matching the actual supply of goods to customer demand, these tools can also help avoid or reduce return shipments.

Manufacturing inevitably generates waste, but much of that material can be recycled. Advanced controls and robotics can sort items more accurately, to optimize the process. And digital marketplaces enable economical trading in recycled material by connecting companies that generate waste with those that recycle it.

ICT: Improve, Convert, Transform
But even the largely hidden handprint of digitalization has a footprint, so we must keep working to improve the sustainability of digital solutions themselves. For example, while data centers are becoming much more energy-efficient, those gains have been offset by rising data flows over broadband networks in the last decade.

But once again, we have an important tool that often remains absent from the public debate: data itself. Accessing, sharing, and using data from other actors helps keep the environmental impacts associated with data within tolerable limits. Sharing data paves the way for managing complex systems using circular business models and smart, clean decentralized energy systems. In short, the only green data is shared data.

As a systematic way to think about the digital handprint, the Wuppertal Institute researchers have suggested the concept of “ICT: Improve, Convert, Transform – for sustainability.”

This means we must Improve current procedures, processes and structures, and Convert existing business models into a different form.

At the same time, digitalization must also effectively reorient society towards more ecologically-sustainable lifestyles and Transform the economy.

This last level of impact will be the decisive factor in whether this effort succeeds. It must therefore be made the focus of future debate.

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