Can More Data Save Our Climate?
Updated: Sep 9
This article was originally published by David Howell.
As IoT and IIoT continue to rapidly develop, could this explosion in data collection result in vast improvements to how we manage climate change? When every aspect of our environment can be tracked and analyzed, does this allow more practical actions to be taken to curb the impact that climate is having across the planet?
Cristina Bueti is Advisor of ITU-T Study Group 5 “Environment and Climate Change” at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She is responsible for ITU-T’s activities related to ICTs and environment with a special focus on smart sustainable cities, climate change and e-waste management. Cristina graduated from the Faculty of Political Science, Law and International Cooperation and Development of the University of Florence, where she completed postgraduate studies in International Cooperation and Telecommunications Law in Europe. She also holds a specialization in Environmental Laws with a special focus on Telecommunications.
Could the expansion of IoT / IIoT technologies have a positive impact on climate change?
“As the report on Frontier Technologies to Protect the Environment and Tackle Climate Change concludes, frontier technologies, including IoT and IIoT, do carry a significant potential to accelerate human response to climate change. This response includes climate change avoidance, adaptation and mitigation activities. For example, the use of IoT enabled-sensor networks has been explored in the report. This application can occur in several areas, from energy infrastructure to water management to gathering climate data that can then be used with other frontier technologies like digital twins.
“Many emerging technologies are inter-related, especially to IoT, to the point where certain technologies or their applications have only become feasible due to implementation of IoT on larger scales. Therefore, ensuring the affordable and wide-scale deployment of ‘enabler’ technologies such as IoT will assure further advancement and adoption of other frontier technologies in the fight against climate change.”
Is IIoT where the real climate change benefits could be revealed as the industry takes more control over its processes?
“As industry can be one of the most significant contributors to climate change, yes, IIoT could potentially play a large role in the overall response to climate change. IIoT scalability would be a big factor when it comes to ensuring the effectiveness of its use in response to climate change.
“Another would be the quality and relevance of data that IIoT ecosystems can facilitate between people, applications and devices. However, the deployment of any technology, including IIoT, does have an environmental impact due to the energy consumed and GHGs generated during production, distribution and implementation. This must be accounted for and mitigated to glean the most benefit from IIoT’s use in this context.”
Does more data equal a better environment for us all?
“More data can be helpful if it is also possible to easily – and without further negative impact on the environment – turn it into a form that allows for actionable insights and informed decision-making. The volume and velocity of IoT/IIoT generated data could be a challenge if it takes significant infrastructure and resources to store and analyze before it can be turned into a form that can be utilized in climate response scenarios or applications.
“It is important, therefore, that innovation continues to be cultivated, nurtured and incentivized in this context by local and national governments alike, in partnership with industry and academia. The faster and easier the most relevant data can be captured from the beginning, the more useful it would be toward catering to the environment without causing further negative impacts such as additional greenhouse gas emissions during collection, storage and retrieval.”
Is it critical that the insights IoT and IIoT deliver are then used to take positive action to reduce emissions, for instance? Data for data’s sake won’t help.
“Absolutely. While the depth of data going as far back as necessary can be vital in terms of mining to understand the long-term changes to the earth’s environment, we also have to deploy data to address critical or fast-moving developments and changes in the environment.
“Cities can benefit particularly from turning the latest data into actionable insights and toward informed decision making. Reduction of emissions through managing traffic flows to bring levels into a prescribed range or threshold (such as the European Union (EU) 35-day limit of major air pollutants) is an example.
“Decision-makers in a city would want the latest numbers and up-to-date analysis to strategize on how best to stop and counteract the levels of certain rising air pollutants. Gathered data could show, for example, that levels of a specific pollutant may exhibit a correlation with traffic patterns, which would be crucial in informing local and regional policy to counteract these harmful air pollutant levels, including strategy and goal-setting.”
Must we be careful not to hold IoT as the panacea for all the issues we have with climate change?
“Indeed. While IoT has tremendous potential in accelerating climate actions, the proliferation of IoT devices may also lead to unintended climate and environmental impacts that will contribute to climate change.
“Lowering cost and rapid innovation have dramatically increased access to IoTs and other connected devices and continue to fuel demands for them. The number of IoTs was estimated to be around 22 billion by the end of 2018 and is expected to reach 75 billion by 2025.
“Each of these devices will reach its end of lifecycle and become waste, or simply e-waste. According to our study, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2017. Of this amount, 40 million tonnes were simply discarded in landfill or incinerated. The improper management of e-waste directly contributes to increasing environmental risks that will not only undermine the global efforts in using them to accelerate climate actions but will also detrimental consequences to human health.
“On top of that, IoT devices are data-driven devices that may consume a considerable amount of energy to operate. Data is being collected and transferred between networks, data centres and among these devices, all of which requires energy to do so. Studies have indicated that by 2040, the carbon emissions from the production and use of IoT will reach 14% of total emission and the total volume of e-waste could reach 120 million tonnes by 2050. Therefore, we must use these devices sustainably and efficiently.
“ITU-T Study Group 5 has been working closely with ITU’s membership to develop international standards that support the sustainable use of IoTs and to create circular visions for all connected devices, from guidelines for operators and suppliers to migrate towards circular ICT goods and data centre, e-waste management framework for countries to policy recommendations to establish extended producer responsibility and setting the GHG emissions trajectories of the ICT sector to be compatible with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement and much more.”
Will better monitoring of water use, air pollution, traffic levels, waste production, and more efficient logistics automatically lead to benefits for the climate and environment many have predicted?
“Monitoring through IoT devices can lead to better climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, from optimizing resource usage, reducing waste production to predicting extreme weather patterns, improving the environmental performance of different city sectors and more. All of these will lead to benefits for the climate and environment.
“However, to fully harness the potential of IoT, it is crucial to take into consideration how IoT devices are interacting with one another, and the way data is being managed and utilized. Effective monitoring requires IoTs being able to communicate with one another. The interoperability of IoT is a central part for facilitating interactions between IoTs devices and platforms.
“The uneven development of these technologies will create frictions that would develop further conflicts and data silo that impede climate and environmental actions. At the same time, data must be utilized with sustainability in mind. Data does not automatically lead to a better climate and environmental actions.
“A human-centric approach to data, one that takes the need of citizens is essential to drive climate actions. That is why ITU-T Study Group 20 has been working to develop international standards that address the standardization requirements of IoT technologies, with an initial focus on IoT applications in smart cities and communities.”
Must IoT be coupled with other technologies such as AI to truly deliver improvements in our climate?
“Frontier technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, IoTs are driving innovative solutions and urban sustainability. However, the carbon footprint of these technologies, such as blockchain and the related mining activities, is increasingly contributing to growing emissions and preventing them from being scaled up for broader adoption. To maximize the positive impacts that frontier technologies can bring, the environmental performance of these technologies should actively be taken into consideration during the implementation process.
“That is why the Focus Group on Environmental Efficiency for Artificial Intelligence and other Emerging Technologies (FG-AI4EE) was created to ensure that frontier technologies are complementing our efforts in climate change and not against it. The FG-AI4EE works to identify the standardization needs to develop a sustainable approach to utilizing frontier technologies, including AI.
“The Focus Group works with global stakeholders to develop technical reports and technical specifications that address the environmental performance aspect of these technologies, from water and energy consumption to GHG reduction. The work of FG-AI4EE aims to guide operating emerging technologies in a more environmentally efficient manner and to connect them to the SDGs.
“ITU as UN specialized agency for ICTs has been working with governments, industry and academia to develop international standards and guidelines that maximize the use of frontier technologies to combat climate change while minimizing their impact on the environment. Additional information on ITU’s activities on environment and climate change can be found at: www.itu.int/climate.