Villain or Hero? How Digital Technology Affects Climate Change

By Tim Mohin and Justin Murrill

As world leaders gather at the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris in December, the stakes are high for the planet. 2015 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record, projected to beat the previous record holder, 2014.1 While the previous 20 meetings of the Conference of Parties (COP) failed to produce a meaningful global climate agreement, hopes are high that COP21 will result in a breakthrough.

At the nexus of business innovation and climate protection is the Information Communication Technology (ICT) industry. ICT can be cast as either the hero or the villain in these climate negotiations. On one hand, computers and servers consumed about 2.5 percent of the global energy produced in 2013, and this trend is increasing. Some estimates project that the number of energy consuming connected devices will reach about 50 billion by 2020, that's an average of over 6 connected devices for each person on the planet! (2, 3)

On the other hand, new generations of ICT devices often provide better performance while using less electricity. For example, at AMD we recently assessed the carbon footprint of our latest Accelerated Processing Unit (APU). The APU combines a central processing unit and a graphics processing unit on one chip to efficiently power personal computers. When compared to the previous generation, we found that users can reduce their carbon footprint by up to 50 percent while enjoying improved computing performance. (4)

Technology is one of the few industries where new products tend to get better AND use less power. It remains to be seen, however, if this rate of energy efficiency improvement can offset the carbon emissions from the rapidly growing number of devices.

Beyond energy efficient devices, the bigger story about ICT and climate is the role of technology in making the world more efficient - this is the part of the story where the hero emerges. An example that is familiar to many is the Nest Thermostat. When this device (or any connected thermostat) replaces an unconnected thermostat, it can be used to remotely adjust the heating and cooling for a home. And, even more importantly, these connected thermostats can sense when people are present or absent from the home and automatically adjust the temperature to save 12-15 percent on average on heating and cooling costs. (5)

This is just one example of how ICT devices can be the hero in the battle against climate change. Another example is cloud computing, which avoids the need for onsite computing services (e.g., storage equipment) and, as a result, can reduce overall energy and emissions up to 50-90 percent.6
The "SMARTer 2030" study concluded the "ICT has the potential to decouple growth from environmental degradation" - meaning that economic growth can continue without negative impacts on the environment including climate change. This is the essence of sustainable development. According to the study, deploying smart technologies could help to hold global CO2 emissions at 2015 levels by 2030. Stated another way, ICT can avoid 10 times more emissions than it consumes by 2030.7

Typically environmental protection comes at a substantial economic cost. However, at least in the aggregate, this does not apply to deploying digital technology. The SMARTer 2030 study forecast that ICT will enable $6.5 trillion in new revenues across key sectors and $4.9 trillion in cost savings from greater efficiencies and decreased waste. The opportunities are seemingly endless: from farmers maximizing crop yields with less water and energy by using weather prediction, to shipping companies navigating to the quickest routes using real-time traffic data, to building systems that can self-adjust heating and cooling, ICT enabled systems can improve efficiency, cut carbon emissions and promote sustainable economic growth.

Skeptics can point to the rapid growth in digital technologies and some seemingly frivolous uses of our digital devices to paint technology as a climate villain. But the rapid advances in ICT energy efficiency, coupled with its unique and enormous potential to help the world be more efficient, makes technology an emerging climate super hero.

Tim Mohin is Director of Corporate Responsibility for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and the author of the book, Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger's Guide to Working in Corporations (Greenleaf and Berrett-Kohler). Justin Murrill is the Global Sustainability Manager for Advanced Micro Devices. Their postings (and comments made in Mohin's book) are their own opinions and may not represent AMD's positions, strategies or opinions. Links to third party sites, and references to third party trademarks, are provided for convenience and illustrative purposes only. Unless explicitly stated, AMD is not responsible for the contents of such links, and no third party endorsement of AMD or any of its products is implied. Follow Tim @TimJMohin and Justin @JustinMurill and check out AMD's latest Corporate Responsibility Report.

1 Anthony Arguez, Scott Applequist, Michael C. Kruk, Michael F. Squires, and Russell S. Vose (2015). Somewhat. Very. Extremely. How likely is it that 2015 will be the new warmest year on record?
2 Cisco, Internet of Things (IoT). Seize New IoT Opportunities with the Cisco IoT System. Accessed 9/15/2015.
3 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision. Accessed 11/18/15. Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100.
4 Venkatesan, Chandramouli (2015). Comparative Carbon Footprint Assessment of the Manufacturing and Use Phases of Two Generations of AMD Accelerated Processing Units.
5 Nest, Inside Nest. The Nest Learning Thermostat saves energy. Here's the proof. Accessed 11/18/15.
6 Daniel R Williams, Peter Thomond, Ian Mackenzie (2013). The Greenhouse Gas Abatement Potential of Enterprise Cloud Computing.
7 Global e-Sustainability Initiative (2015). The #Smarter2030 opportunity: ICT Solutions for 21st Century Challenges. Accessed 11/18/15.