From ‘What If?’ to ‘What’s Next?’: Emergent Research on ICT, Climate Change and Development

The rapid diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has been accompanied by an increasing body of research exploring both the potential and challenges associated with the use of these tools, particularly in developing countries. Research in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field has advanced by often aiming at moving targets, as new technologies are continuously developed, different priorities emerge, traditional technologies merge with newer ones in development practice, and players and agendas at the local, national and international levels constantly transform.

ICT4D research takes place within contexts that are in continuous metamorphosis: social, economic, political, and increasingly, climatic.

Research at the intersection of ICTs, climate change and development constitutes a field of possibilities and challenges that were unimaginable only a few years ago. The role of ICTs towards dematerialisation, transport substitution or climate change governance, which in the past may have seemed far removed from the priorities of the global South, are becoming issues of increasing attention, along with the exploration of new approaches to climate change monitoring and adaptation that are viable and sustainable within contexts affected by poverty and marginalization.

What a few years ago constituted “What if” questions in regards to the role of ICT within the climate change field, are given way to the question “What’s next?” particularly in regards to the needs of developing countries, where the effects of climatic disturbances often exacerbate existing development challenges and vulnerabilities (IPCC, 2007; Moser et. al, 2008).

A recent report titled “Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study addresses this question by suggesting six emerging research areas at the intersection of these fields [1]:

(a) Mitigation

  • ICTs and community-level mitigation
  • ICTs, climate change and global value and supply chains
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging consumer trends
  • ICTs, climate change and emerging business practices

(b) Monitoring

  • ICTs, climate change monitoring and local empowerment

(c) Adaptation

  • ICTs, climate change and localization
  • ICT and local livelihoods
  • ICTs, local voices and awareness raising
  • ICTs and emerging social aspects of climate change

(d) Strategy

  • ICTs, climate change and inclusion
  • ICTs, climate change and governance challenges
  • ICTs and climate change decision-making processes

(e) Disaster Management and Response

  • ICTs, disaster management and response

(f) Technologies: Impacts and Issues

  • Low-cost and emerging technologies

Although these issues are not meant to constitute an exhaustive list of emerging topics, they do invite reflection by ICT, climate change and development practitioners, researchers and visionaries alike, in order to determine a new agenda of research and action towards the future.

Innovative ‘what if’ approaches have paved the way to new solutions that are increasingly being tested and implemented in the field, as the diffusion of ICTs, particularly mobile phones, continues to permeate the fabrics of developing country societies.

But as the impacts of stronger storms, drier seasons, heavier precipitation or rising sea levels become more visible, so does the importance of identifying What’s next? in terms of research in the ICT, climate change and development field.

Therefore, this entry ends with an open question, an invitation to think about

‘What else is next?’

Which other topics could we identify in terms of the potential of ICTs to help developing countries to effectively adapt, monitor, and ultimately contribute to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

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[1] The areas and issues identified in the report are based on an overview of the trends that literature on ICTs, climate change and development has followed in since the 90’s, the main components of the Overview Model on ICTs, Climate Change and Development, as well as on the analysis of experiences emerging from developing countries as key areas for future research.

References:

IPCC. 2007. Fouth Assessment Report (AR4). Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), http://www.ipcc.ch

Moser, C. & Satterthwaite, D. (2008) Towards Pro-Poor Adaptation to Climate Change in the Urban Centres of Low and Middle-Income Countries. International Institute for Environment -and Development (IIED), London http://www.iied.org/pubs/pdfs/10564IIED.pdf

Ospina, A. V. & Heeks, R. (2010) Unveiling the Links between ICTs & Climate Change in Developing Countries: A Scoping Study. Centre for Development Informatics, Institute for development Policy and Planning (IDPM), University of Manchester, http://www.niccd.org/ScopingStudy.pdf

ICTs for ‘e-Environment’: The Broader Picture

While global concerns rise over the impacts that human activities have on the environment, an increasing number of ICT practitioners, researchers and technology advocates are exploring the potential of these tools in the response to climate change.

In the midst of the imminent, yet uncertain climatic conditions, interest in mitigation and monitoring strategies is now combined with the urgency of learning to cope and adapt to climate changes, particularly in vulnerable developing environments.

It is in this context that research on the role of ICTs in climate change is starting to flourish through a number of projects and initiatives, supported mainly by international organizations and NGOs around the world. Some of these can be found in a report commissioned by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) titled ICTs for e-Environment.

The concept of ‘e-Environment’ was used in the 2003 World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) Plan of Action to make reference to the benefits of ICT applications in three main areas:

  • ICT use for environmental protection and the sustainable use of natural resources;
  • ICT use in actions and programs for sustainable production and consumption, and the environmentally safe disposal and recycling of discarded hardware and components used in ICTs; and
  • ICT use to forecast and monitor the impact of natural and man-made disasters, particularly in developing countries, LDCs and small economies.

Building on this definition, the 2008 ITU report provides a comprehensive account of ICT activities and applications that indicate the impact of ICTs in the environment, as well as their role in mitigation and adaptation efforts. It also provides a set of recommendations aimed at strengthening the capacity of developing countries to benefit from the potential of these tools in the context of climate change.

The document is an important contribution to a flourishing field of enquiry, and constitutes a great starting point for further in-depth research and discussion.

The findings of the report include the following key points:

  • ICTs & Carbon Footprint: ICTs can help to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) missions while increasing energy efficiency and reducing the use of natural resources (through travel replacement, dematerialization and reduced energy consumption).
  • ICTs & Human Activities: While ICTs are essential to our understanding of the environment, further research is needed to understand the long-term impacts of ICTs on human activities.
  • ICTs & Decision-Making: New technologies such as geographic information system (GIS) and a new generation of web-based services are having a profound effect facilitating decision-making.
  • ICTs & Connectivity: Broadband Internet connection is a key tool to support environmental research, learning and decision-making.
  • ICTs & Developing Capacity: Developing countries face important challenges in taking advantage of ICT tools in their response to climate change. It is necessary to strengthen their mitigation and adaptation capacity, while helping them to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
  • ICTs & a Holistic Approach: Its necessary a comprehensive and integrated approach to global environmental action through access to ICTs and new management practices to avoid duplication of efforts.
  • ICTs, e-Government & the Environment: It is necessary to raise the profile of environmental issues within ICT strategic planning initiatives at the national level, particularly in e-Government initiatives.

In view of the growing international attention to developing country needs and perspectives, the report provides a good opportunity to reflect about how to effectively engage developing stakeholders in the analysis and implementation of climate change actions and strategies.

Beyond the provision of guidelines or recommendations, how can the international community work hand in hand towards joint action in the e-environment field?  This question includes stakeholders from the Government, civil society and private sectors, as well as the international donor community.

Six years and many international forums have passed since the 2003 WSIS, and although important progress has been made, and we are still facing the challenge of firmly positioning the ‘e’ as part of the environment discussion.

ICTs and COP16: Some Issues to Consider

As we move beyond the hype, the hope or the frustration that events such as COP15 inspire, its fair to recognize the intrinsic value of the process that has brought us here. There is value on the renewed global awareness of the fact that our environment is rapidly and irreversibly changing, as well as on the realization of the close links that exist between climate change and the vulnerability of the poor.

There is also value in the recognition of new issues that play a role in fostering development amidst the shifting climate, and that can make a difference in the type of response that we are able provide to its challenges. Amongst them, the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is particularly relevant.

ICTs and Climate Change was the focus of a side event organized by ITU and OECD, in partnership with GeSI, during the UNFCCC climate change talk in Barcelona, last month. All the presentations are available in YouTube.

Graham Vickery (OECD) was one of the speakers invited (starts in minute 8:24).

He pointed out the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of ICTs in our daily life, and perhaps because of it, we have failed to make the link between their potential and our response to climate change.

He also suggested 3 main levels of ICT impact in the environment: (a) ICT equipment (electricity and energy use, raw         materials and disposal), (b) ICT ‘Smart’ applications, and (c) ICTs and the need for systemic change. According to Vickery, part of the challenge is making these three levels more clearly linked with major areas that are under consideration right now, namely mitigation, adaptation, and technology transfer.

His presentation raises some interesting issues for discussion:

  • How would the climate scenario look like if –at least part of- the 4 billion mobile telephone subscribers play a role in monitoring and documenting the effects of climate change, and in managing the carbon footprint?
  • What type of ‘Green changes’ could ICTs help us foster in our daily lives? What could we do different or more efficiently with the help of these tools?
  • How could we contribute as consumers –and producers- to the three main levels that Vickery points out?

In considering these questions its useful to look at Richard Heeks’ overview model on ‘ICTs, Climate Change and Development’, as it provides further details on the ways in which ICTs can play a role in mitigation, monitoring and adaptation strategies.

All these issues will need to be carefully considered as the global community moves forward from COP15 to COP16 in Mexico 2010. And although new hype, hope and skepticism will continue to surround the process, we need to be better prepared to effectively insert ICTs and its contribution to development into the climate change agenda.

Overview Model of ICTs, Climate Change and Development

The model shown below indicates the various domains of relation between information and communication technologies (ICTs), climate change and development. These are:
– Mitigation: how ICTs can reduce carbon emissions (but also how they contribute)
– Monitoring: how ICTs can help measure and analyse climate change and its impacts
– Strategy: how ICTs can enable strategic actions on climate change
– Adaptation: how ICTs can help developing countries adapt to climate change in the short- and longer-term

This is still a model under development, so comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.