From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes


describe the telecommunications industry's search for sustainability

In early February, 1999, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, called on multinational companies to enact and uphold standards on human rights, labour and the environment in their operations, particularly in developing countries. Kofi Annan suggested a voluntary 'code of conduct' that corporations would impose on themselves and their suppliers. At virtually the same moment, representatives of North American and European telecommunications companies were en route to Nairobi, Kenya, to make a presentation to the UNEP Governing Council on their recent efforts to develop environmental 'codes of conduct' in both North America and Europe for the telecommunications industry.

It may seem odd that one of the most innovative and influential industries of our time - telecommunications - is engaging one of the most difficult and pervasive issues of our time - the quality of the environment and the promise of sustainability. After all, telecommunications is widely acknowledged as one of the preferred 'clean' high-tech industries, with few negative waste streams or environmental impacts. Telecommunications is a clean industry - but also a large and rapidly growing one. As United States environmentalists invited by the industry to comment on its performance as part of its Communications Environmental Excellence Initiative (CEEI) recently pointed out, large companies have impacts, minimally the impacts associated with size. Large numbers of workers in commercial office buildings create impacts including energy use, solid waste (paper) generation, and non-point source pollution and water consumption resulting from office park landscape maintenance. Specific operational impacts of the telecommunications business include issues such as large-scale fleet maintenance, fuel storage, right-of-way maintenance, equipment siting, and also the significant impacts associated with the manufacture and disposal of rapidly obsolete telephone equipment.

Environmental charter

In the summer of 1997, the Center for Resource Management (CRM) was invited, based upon similar projects it facilitated with the United States advertising and golf industries, to assist several leading North American telecommunications companies in their efforts to develop an industry-wide environmental charter. The CRM is a Denver, Colorado-based environmental organization specializing in the development of collaborative and strategic solutions to complex natural resource issues. We were intrigued then, as we are still, with the potential of this particular industry to bring new thinking and new technology to bear on difficult environmental problems worldwide.

The promise of this industry was illustrated at UNEP's February Governing Council meeting in Nairobi when Dave Heller, Vice-President for Risk Management for U S WEST, pointed out that nearly two-thirds of the world's population has never made a phone call. But contrary to the traditional interpretation of this fact - that developing countries will remain decades behind 'first-world' countries in their access to technology and their eventual efforts to catch up - Heller called for optimism. New telecommunications technologies may make it possible for developing countries to leapfrog a generation of fixed infrastructure, joining first-world countries simultaneously in the use of satellites, cell phones and other emerging technologies. Heller went on to express the vision and the promise of the telecommunications industry - 'that the transmission of bits and bytes may increasingly substitute for the burning of hydrocarbons - that search engines will eventually prove more important and prevalent than internal combustion engines.'

Providing a model

Clearly, the CEEI aspires to do more than curb the impacts of its member companies. In February, 1999, the CEEI completed its Environmental Charter for the North American Telecommunications Industry. The charter first addresses the many opportunities for the industry to seek innovation in managing its own environmental impacts. Then, it takes an additional historic step - suggesting that the use of telecommunications technology may provide solutions to other sectors in their quest for improved environmental performance. The Charter's foreword states: 'It is our hope that telecommunications may provide a model for how to increasingly substitute the movement of information and ideas for the movement of goods and people, a far less resource intensive transaction. This shift could significantly lessen the environmental burdens of the planet.' AT&T, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Bell Canada, BellSouth, BCT.Telus and U S WEST are the seven original signatories to the Environmental Charter. Additional North American signatories will be sought in the months ahead.


Towards sustainability

The broader vision of the CEEI is that the proliferating array of telecommunications-driven devices - the internet, e-mail, e-commerce, e-medicine, e-education, telecommuting, etc. - may assist in the global transition to sustainability. Telecommunications is not just a substitute for the physical movement of goods and people, it is also capable of more widely disseminating information and ideas in general - and information and ideas that support more sustainable business and individual practices in particular. The idea that 'have-nots' are going to be more seriously disadvantaged in the future because they are 'know-nots' may be challenged by the ability of new technology to reach heretofore inaccessible populations. This ability is currently being demonstrated in the former Yugoslavia where the International Red Cross and other aid groups are making satellite phones available to refugees isolated by war, desperate to find missing family members or to communicate their status to loved ones around the world.

In summary, the North American CEEI project has achieved several important performance milestones:

- In December, 1997, an organizing conference was held in San Diego, to kick off the CEEI. The conference brought together over a dozen North American telecommunications companies, together with key representatives of the environmental community to initiate a dialogue that would eventually result in an industry-wide environmental charter.

- In 1998, the CEEI Steering Committee, consisting of representatives from Ameritech, AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Bell Canada, BellSouth, BCT.Telus, and U S WEST, and the CRM completed a draft charter for the North American telecommunications industry.

- In February, 1999, representatives of the North American and European telecommunications industry travelled to Nairobi, Kenya to make a presentation to the UNEP Governing Council regarding the opportunities for global improvement and change resulting from telecommunications technology.

- On 22 February, 1999, representatives of the North American and European telecommunications industry met in New York, along with high-ranking officials of UNEP and the United Nations to celebrate the signing of the Environmental Charter for the North American Telecommunications Industry.

The CRM will continue to engage the environmental community as well as other industry 'outsiders' in the evolution of the project, to ensure its credibility and relevance.

The future looks promising with CEEI engaging in discussions with UNEP and the European Telecommunication Network Operators (ETNO) to identify opportunities to put telecommunications technology to work in unusual and strategic ways around the world. It is also investigating a permanent 'governance' structure to house CEEI, and considering a host of projects including compilation of best management practices for the industry, sharing methods for measuring and benchmarking environmental performance, and developing better means of communicating individual and collective environmental performance. While North American telecommunications companies do the difficult work of 'continuous improvement' at home, they will also be seeking unique situations to demonstrate the telecommunications industry's role in advancing global sustainability and democratization*

Terrell J. Minger is President and Meredith Miller is Senior Project Manager at the Colorado-based Center for Resource Management.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Kenneth F. Hine: Green beds and greenbacks (Tourism) 1999
Margaret G. Kerr: Profits with honour (The Way Ahead) 1997
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997
Osama A. El-Kholy: Cleaner, timely and all-embracing (UNEP 25) 1997
Carlos Joly: Insuring the future (UNEP 25) 1997
Olav Myrholt: Greening the Olympics (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1999 Banson
All rights reserved.