Global Goal 13 and the ICT industry's role in reducing carbon emissions - part 1 (1/3)

Twenty years ago I presented the results from my first study at Ericsson as a new employee. I showed that burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity to run our products (which are in operation more or less 24/7 over their lifetime) was the major environmental impact for our telecom products. Some people in the audience had a hard time believing that “the same stuff we breathe out” – carbon dioxide (CO2) plus other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and effects that cause global warming –was really one of our largest impacts if not the largest.

Global Goal 13 and the ICT industry's role in reducing carbon emissions - part 1 (1/3)

Senior specialist Environmental Impacts and Life Cycle Analysis

Senior specialist Environmental Impacts and Life Cycle Analysis

Times have changed. Today I have 20 years of experience with these issues, and just recently I used the figure below to show where we are and what we must do about the GHG emission and effects that cause global warming.

Figure 1 Global GHG emissions and global temperature increase.
Sources: IPCC, EDGAR and NOAA

What know for a fact is that CO2 and other GHGs absorb heat and that if we emit more of them into the atmosphere it will get warmer here on Earth. This is not new news. One of the first serious alarms about global warming was raised 50 years ago by US scientists, and what they predicted could happen in a business-as-usual scenario has happened with scary accuracy up to today.

Last September the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, and Global Goal #13 is Climate Action. Then last December world leaders met in Paris and signed a climate agreement that hopefully will be ratified later this year. Country representatives had intense discussions about who should do what and when and who should pay for it all. The result was an agreement in which all countries are supposed to set their own GHG emission reduction targets and continuously try to improve them, and also that richer nations should pay more.

At the moment, the Paris targets lead to a global warming of 3°C or more, which is not acceptable. More needs to be done, much more. In the end it came down to wording and the stronger word “shall” was not accepted by a lot of countries so the agreement now says “should”. But the agreement is all we have and it’s better than nothing. The World Economic Forum recently went out with the result of a survey they sent to about 750 of their own experts about the biggest threat to social and economic stability in 2016 and global warming came out as the number one threat.

Figure 2 shows GHG emissions for different income groups in the world. Note that land use related GHG emissions and effects are not included (if included, the total would increase from 43 to 49 Gt). Based on "Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & prospects for an equitable adaptation fund", Lucas Chancel (Iddri & Paris School of Economics) and Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics), Paris School of Economics, November 2015)

The question about who should do what and when and who should pay for it all is obvious looking at the figure above. Just the carbon footprint for air travel and air transports per person of the “rich 10 percent” group is larger than the total carbon footprint of a person belonging to “the lower 50 percent” group.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized in their latest report in 2014 that we need to reduce global GHG emissions by 40 to 70 percent by 2050 compared to 2010. The average reduction (55 percent) results in a carbon footprint per person of 2.2 - 2.4 ton CO2e for a global population of 9-10 billion people in 2050. For long-term sustainability though, we need to get down to zero, and we may even need to be on the negative side for quite some time depending on how much we emit the coming decades.

Half of the global population already has a carbon footprint below 2 tons of CO2e. They don’t have to reduce their footprint; they only need to think about how to develop their societies and at the same time avoid increasing their footprints too much.

When looking at geological records, we see that increased levels of CO2 stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years accumulating heat on Earth. If the future heat accumulation from incinerating only one tank of petrol could be used, it could heat an average Swedish home for more than 1,200 years. Heating homes and atmospheric energy are different in space and time but the comparison is made here to immediately create awareness about the amount of energy that accumulates over time on our planet, mainly in the oceans. Of the total heat “created,” we only use 0.003% (450 kWh), the remaining 99.997 percent (15 GWh) can be seen as a form of “waste” heat that will cause severe problems for future generations for thousands of years.

We must simply reduce emissions drastically in the coming decades to not leave a more hostile climate and environment to our children.

For more information, please read Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

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