New CCA report outlines challenges and opportunities with harnessing green ICT

Guest Contributor
June 26, 2014

Strong research base must be leveraged

Canada's ability to reduce its carbon footprint by leveraging information and communications technologies (ICT) can only be realized by collectively overcoming several pressing challenges, concludes an expert panel report from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA). Commissioned in 2011 by Environment Canada, the report — Enabling Sustainability in an Interconnected World — outlines steps that could be taken within the diverse area of green ICT that will socially and economically benefit Canadians.

Adopting the three-pillared concept of sustainability (economic, social and environmental), the 224-page report focuses on opportunities to leverage increased technology adoption, physical and research infrastructure and alignment of skills with future workforce requirements.

It identifies specific measures via five interdependent technical components of the ICT platform and six thematic areas: environmental monitoring, smart interconnected utilities, smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods, smart interconnected mobility, smart interconnected production and healthy people and healthy communities. Each requires tangible linkages to the three sustainability pillars to ensure positive impacts.

Chaired by David Miller, president and CEO of WWF-Canada and former mayor of Toronto, the expert panel responded to a series of five questions and found that the potential of green ICT to achieve sustainability is being inhibited by seven barriers (see chart).

The report confirms that Canada is strong in several research areas related to green ICT, with organizations such as Prompt, Sustainable Development Technologies Canada (SDTC) and MaRS innovation providing key support. Broadband networks such as those operated by CANARIE and NEPTUNE also offer the potential for significant energy savings.

"Simply adding more technology, regulation, or money will not solve the sustainability issues that lie ahead. What is required are enhanced strategies that respect sustainability challenges and leverage key strengths in order to build a more resilient and adaptable society." — CCA expert panel report

"The research nodes we have in this area across the country are tremendous. What we're lacking is being able to effectively commercialize. Business needs to show leadership," says Miller. "The issues we presented are low-hanging fruit with benefits for all. There's huge potential as an interconnected society if we can overcome the barriers."

Miller says that aggressive actions on the part of the US, Europe and Australia (which has adopted a much-admired national broadband strategy) add a certain urgency to the situation in Canada. It's an observation shared by Bill St-Arnaud, a consultant for green ICT and research and education networks and former chief research officer for CANARIE (R$, July 19/10).

"There's growing recognition that cap and trade and carbon tax initiatives are not enough. The key is investing in innovation. The report is not dramatic or scary enough on climate change," says St Arnaud, one of 11 experts who reviewed the CCA report.. "We need other remedies and ICT is the most important one … Canada is behind the pack and resting on its laurels. It's not making sufficient investments, except for Quebec."

One opportunity singled out in the report is the location of data centres in Canada — particularly Quebec which offers a relatively cool climate and an abundance of hydro electric power. Data centres are projected to represent a global market of $220 billion by 2020. Efforts to attract US-based data centres to the province have been unsuccessful.

"There was a California-Canada research initiative which did studies showing huge cost savings but there was no coordinated effort so it didn't happen," says St Arnaud.

The federal government has a major opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to reduce energy consumption by consolidating its 485 data centres operated by Shared Services Canada into seven mega data centres.

European-based firms have been receptive to Quebec's various incentives to locate or expand in the province. Roubaix France-based OVH — a multinational web hosting company — has converted a former Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum plant in the Montreal suburb of Beauharnois into a massive energy-efficient data center with the capacity to accommodate 360,000 servers.

"The world is on the threshold of fundamental, transformative change — a powerful convergence of digital computing power and information technologies with the physical infrastructures and institutions that deliver energy, water, food, transport, and communication services. This convergence of ICT with the physical world can potentially drive Canada towards significantly better environmental performance, economic productivity, and health and social well-being." — CCA expert panel report

Late last year, Ericsson AB announced a $1.2-billion IT centre in Quebec, augmented by $30 million in support, preferential electricity prices and a tax holiday on work salaries.

St Arnaud says the federal government needs to make targeted investments in green ICT, either through the granting councils. existing programs like SDTC or a new dedicated funding program.

Common Challenges
  • costs, or fear of costs, related to implementation of the technology and corresponding infrastructure
  • lack of data access and interoperability
  • lack of the needed ICT skills
  • privacy and security issues
  • behavioural factors
  • second-order effects
  • inadequate broadband connectivity in rural areas

Six Thematic Areas
  • environmental monitoring
  • smart interconnected utilities
  • smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods
  • smart interconnected mobility
  • smart interconnected production
  • healthy people and healthy communities.

"We need to match or mirror what's been done in Europe like Horizons 2020 which has a €250 million program. A combination of sectors is needed to address green ICT," he says. "We need leadership like (US president Barack) Obama who, despite the obstruction of Congress, has found $150 million a year for this."

While the panel was not permitted to make recommendations or advocate for increased spending, funding requirements implicit in areas that the report deems important shouldn't be an obstacle as costs should be recouped fairly quickly.

Miller says that — in contrast to the negative reception accorded the previous CCA report on the environmental impact of fracking — the panel's work on green ICT has garnered a favourable response.

"We met with the sponsor to present the report and received an exceptional reception. They are clearly aware of the complexity of the issues and their considerable potential."


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