Calling for change

Brad Allenby outlines the environmental challenges of the ‘information revolution’

Superficially the relationship between telecommunications and the environment seems to be relatively straightforward: minimize the impacts of telecom devices and infrastructure, maximize the substitution of information for other inputs into the economy (for example, through teleworking), and you have a recipe for sustainability.

This is true as far as it goes – but it is also a gross oversimplification. Information changes the world. It is auto-catalysing – the more you have, the more you generate – and it is impossible from this vantage point to predict the results of what some call the ‘information revolution’, others the ‘knowledge society’. All that can be done is to sketch out a schematic conceptual framework within which we may at least begin to ask the right questions.

The most basic level is manufacture of telecom devices – making switches, routers, cell phones, television sets, personal computers. This is the traditional focus of environmental professionals, and is fairly well understood, although implementing appropriate standards, especially in some developing countries, requires continued attention.

Life cycles
The next level is considering the whole life cycle of the device, attempting to understand its impact on the environment while it is being used and when it reaches the end of its life. The methodologies for understanding complex manufactured objects over their life cycle and designing them appropriately (design for environment) are still primitive. But this level is at least recognized conceptually, and is being addressed, especially in Europe.

The third level involves the construction and maintenance of networks and infrastructure. Here the issues become broader, including everything from constructing land-line facilities properly through environmentally sensitive wetlands and habitats, to the overall energy efficiency of network operations, to the maintenance of the fleets of vehicles needed to keep the network running well. In some cases, including network energy efficiency, economics drives appropriate behaviour; in others, such as land use or vehicle emission systems, regulations control environmental impacts. It is probably fair to say that this level is also reasonably well understood and managed from an environmental perspective, although the dynamics can be tricky because networks are complex systems.

More importantly, perhaps, social issues arise for the first time: one may argue that, where the coverage of networks is not universal, differential access to information and knowledge may develop between, for example, rich and poor in the ‘digital divide’. Such social issues must be addressed, although the appropriate division of labour among governments, private firms and non-governmental organizations has yet to be stabilized.
Information changes the world... the more you have the more you generate
Our degree of knowledge is relatively low, however, about the fourth level – services such as broadband communications, and social practices based on them, such as teleworking. Teleworking provides a good example. Although the practice has been around for decades, critically important questions remain unresolved: for example, how do its environmental and social implications differ among cultures and/or what are its long-term demographic and distributional effects?

We are almost completely at sea when it comes to more complex information systems. For example, the Internet – and services built on it, such as e-commerce – is rapidly evolving, and having significant impacts across economic, cultural and social systems. But asking the question, ‘What are the life cycle environmental and social impacts of the Internet?’ illustrates how little we know. Partly this is because we lack data and research, but more fundamentally it is the result of the profound cultural power of information systems at this scale.

Finally, there is the fifth level – the knowledge economy and the infosphere. One example may illustrate the potential for discontinuous and fundamental change in Earth systems – both natural and human – implicit in information technology. What are the implications of a completely sensored and wired world, one where millimetre size cubes scattered around the Earth are knit into a real time information structure that tracks the evolution of environmental systems as it happens? This is not science fiction: as I write the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of California are planning just such an information network for the entire Central Valley of California. Psychologically and operationally, this would be a very different world. Just the possibility illustrates the promise and challenge of the operation of information systems and the environment at this scale, and our relative lack of knowledge about it

Brad Allenby is Environment, Health and Safety Vice President for AT&T, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, and a Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School, United States.

(The opinions in this article are the author’s alone, and not necessarily those of any of the entities with which he is associated.)

PHOTOGRAPH: Topham Picturepoint

Global ICT initiative

Working with UNEP, the International Telecommunications Union, the European Telecommunication Network Operators Association, the North American Communications Environmental Excellence Initiative and signatories of the World Telecom Congress communiqué on sustainable development, a number of companies have come together to establish a global ICT sustainability initiative. It will be launched on 5 June at the World Environment Day celebrations in Turin.

Recognizing the revolutionary changes taking place around the world as a result of new information and communication technologies (ICT), members of the initiative will take a pro-active stance over their environmental impacts and the contribution their technologies can make to sustainable development.

The specific objectives are to:

1. Create a global forum to improve and promote both products and services, and access to ICT, for the benefit of human development and a more sustainable environment.

2. Promote greater awareness, accountability and transparency within the ICT sector.

3. Encourage continual improvement in environmental management and develop best practice.

4. Stimulate international and multi-stakeholder cooperation with, and by, the ICT sector.

5. Promote and support partner regional initiatives and liaise with other relevant international activities.

6. Start with a greater emphasis on environmental issues and move towards a gradual adoption of the full corporate social responsibility agenda.

7. Extend membership of the initiative in order to achieve full global coverage.

8. Construct the ICT industry contribution to the Rio+10 summit and other global activities such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the United Nations Global Compact.

The initiative is open to both communication service operators and their equipment suppliers and member companies who commit to a certain level of environmental achievement.

At the time of writing, the following companies had put themselves forward as founding members: AT&T, British Telecom, Cable and Wireless, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Lucent Technologies, Marconi, Telcordia Technologies and Telenor.

Chris Tuppen is Head of Sustainable Development and Corporate Accountability at British Telecom.

For more information contact UNEP-DTIE, tel: +33 1 44 37 14 50, e-mail:

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Mark Hickey: No wires attached (The Environment Millenium) 2000
Terrell J. Minger and Meredith Miller: From hydrocarbons to bits and bytes (Looking Forward) 1999
Stepen O. Anderson: Industry in the lead (Ozone) 1997