Sustainable ICT development and the role of ITU – DigiGreen EP.1 (Podcast)


Information and communication technologies (ICTs) could help address climate concerns and enable the much-needed shift toward a circular economy (CE). But ICTs also contribute to global carbon emissions and generate waste in their production, usage and eventual obsolescence. What type of collaborations do we need to address sustainable ICT development?

Key message:

Actions on climate change and digitalization should influence each other at the strategic level. Digitalization should address energy and environmental concerns and help to lay out a green recovery and low-carbon development path. An environmental responsibility mindset is needed in the ICT sector, as well as among policy makers, citizens and academia, to drive concerted and timely actions.


[00:00:05.160] – Xiao Wang
Hello, welcome here, I’m your host, Wang Xiao, and this is Digi Green series brought to you by the Copenhagen Center on Energy Efficiency. Stick around, If you want to get to know a 3D transformation of energy through digitalisation, decarbonisation and development. Before we dive in remember, you can find many more interesting knowledge products on digital transformation of energy on Now let’s begin.
[00:00:52.310] – Xiao Wang
Welcome back. You’re listening to the Digi Green podcast series produced by the Copenhagen Center on Energy Efficiency. Today, we have invited Mr. Malcolm Johnson, deputy secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union. Mr. Johnson, it is our great pleasure to have you here today discussing energy efficient solutions and ICT technologies. Before we start, could you introduce briefly ITU to our audiences?
[00:01:25.040] – Malcolm Johnson
OK, thank you very much and thanks for the invitation. Well, ITU, International Telecoms Union, it’s a specialized agency of the U.N. for information and communication technologies. So we have three main areas. One is that we develop technical standards for telecommunication devices and services that’s increasingly abroad, of course, because the technology is now getting into all types of different industry sectors. So it can be, for example, on energy generation, it can be on transportation, it can be for vehicles. So is increasingly wide range of topics, of course. And then secondly is managing the use international use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits. We maintain the international treaty on that. And thirdly, is helping developing countries make best use of this technology, either through running projects like connecting schools, or encouraging an enabling environment policy environment, encouraging investment, et cetera. So those are the three areas that we work in ITU.
[00:02:56.650] – Xiao Wang
Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for a comprehensive introduction for today’s episode, we’ll be looking at how climate actions could be achieved through sustainable development. We will be exploring the carbon reduction opportunities in the data center industry, particularly through innovative cooling technologies. If you are interested in our discussion, you can find supplemental materials about liquid cooling in data centers on our website. Mr. Johnson, cooling technologies have been discussed a lot in the data center and ICT industry in the past few years. Why suddenly the industry is so interested in innovative cooling technologies, particularly liquid cooling? What are the benefits liquid cooling could bring to the data center industry?
[00:03:49.820] – Malcolm Johnson
Yes. Thank you so. Well, of course, as we know, the Covid pandemic has meant a huge increase in demand for information and communication technologies. You know, whether it’s to for work, for study, just keeping in touch with friends and family, getting the best health advice or whatever. So there’s been a huge increase in demand and of course, most of us now working from home teleworking. So this huge increase in demand, of course, has meant that there’s been an increase in the carbon footprint from the ICT sector. This is something, of course, that has been increasing for many years as more and more people make use of the technology. And despite the fact that is that a lot of effort has gone into reducing energy consumption in the sector, for example, reducing energy consumption for devices, ITU develops a range of standards on looking at ways of reducing the energy consumption from the sector. So one of the areas, of course, that needs to be looked at is the the data centers, because they contribute a lot to the sector’s carbon footprint. And traditionally across most of the existing ones called, which is why they’re often placed and in the cold environments and the northern hemisphere. But there is an increasing interest in and using liquid cooling, as you mentioned, because it can be more energy efficient, doesn’t require the use of large fans. It’s quiet and we can even use a dielectric liquid, which would mean that it can actually come in contact with the heat generation generating ICT devices so that the heat can be very effectively transferred away from the heat source and then can go through heat exchanger and possibly be used as a source of heating maybe for the buildings and homes. So it has a huge potential benefit over air cooling and and water cooling because, of course, water, water wouldn’t be able to get in contact, close contact with the electric electronic devices. So so those are some of the the main advantages. And, of course, that you need to look at ways that we can reach international standards in this area so that we can ensure that there is interoperability between different manufacturers, equipment and and also that best practices are used. And that if we have a world standard, of course, that you can benefit from the result in economies of scale of entering into a world wide market. So summery liquid cooling can be a very innovative, energy efficient technology, could decrease datacenter cooling energy demand, reduce the carbon footprint for the sector. And and of course, because water now is becoming a scarce resource itself, would be far more efficient than using water.
[00:08:06.350] – Xiao Wang
You mentioned earlier about ITU standards for energy use of ICT sector. How are these standards being developed? Who is involved in the standard making process?
[00:08:17.690] – Malcolm Johnson
These standards are developed by our membership, which includes over 900 sector members and in addition to our 193 member states. And of course, most of the technical work on these standards is done by our sector members. All the main industries, of course, both the vendors and the operators are involved in producing these standards. Industry identifies the need, they get together to lay down the requirements, always one of the main items in this list of requirements is the energy consumption and work up the standard and when there’s a consensus on the standard, then it’s passed to the ITU’s member states for for approval and becomes a truly international standard. So it’s a very nice partnership between the private sector and the public sector. So a lot of work has gone into that for many years. But of course, now that is is even more needed than before because of this increased use of the technologies.
[00:09:38.340] – Xiao Wang
The actions of governments and civil society alone are not enough for tackling our most pressing environmental challenges and achieving the sustainable development goals in the journey of tackling global challenges. We need to partner up with the private sector. So it is great to see that ITU is providing opportunities for the private sector to foster long term value through a sustainability agenda and to make tangible contributions to the implementation of the SDGs. If you happen to be someone from the private sector and interested in joining the UN in developing energy efficient ICT standards, here is why ITU is a great place for your involvement.
[00:10:24.990] – Malcolm Johnson
Yes, as I mentioned, we ITU have a very diverse membership, increasingly diverse because more and more. Sectors are using the technology and therefore want to be involved in the development of the standards which they will be using. So we have this increasingly diverse membership from industry that’s very critical, probably unique as a UN agency to have over 900 sector members. So that is is the unique aspect of ITU. And of course, membership is open to anyone. Of course, they have to pay a membership fee to cover costs. But but it’s not a substantial fee. And for small and medium enterprises, as there’s a very low fee.
[00:11:22.830] – Xiao Wang
I know inclusion and diversity is at the heart of UN organization’s work. It makes the workforce more innovative and creative. Besides the private sector partners, who else are involved in the standards making process in ITU?
[00:11:39.890] – Malcolm Johnson
We also have academia members as well. So we have over a hundred and sixty universities as members of ITU, and they also participate in the in the development of our standards. So this is totally, totally an open membership. And as I say, it’s really the industry that identifies the need for a standard. And then our industry members, together with the academia members and government representatives as necessary, although of course they don’t get involved in very technical standards actually, then go ahead and develop the standards. So it’s fairly open process. But we do have a number of regional groups. Of course, now, most of all, the the meetings now a virtual have been for for 12 months. So people can join them from anywhere, of course. But even when before the Covid locked down, we did allow for participation in our meetings remotely because, of course, some of the smaller companies can’t afford the cost of traveling across the world to to attend physical meetings. So even before Covid, we had a lot of remote participants in the meetings as well. And we do have regional groups in addition to the four international groups, we do have regional groups and they can develop regional requirements that can be fed into the main groups. And of course, they meet locally, can even work in the local language, fits in the Latin America. Of course they can. They can meet and work in and Spanish.
[00:13:48.830] – Xiao Wang
Apart from the membership approach, are there any other ways for interested groups and individuals to contribute to the idea, work for energy efficient ICT development?
[00:14:00.020] – Malcolm Johnson
Yes, well, we were we were totally open and welcoming to to anyone that wishes to join and contribute to our work. So we have them. And then, of course, we often have workshops open to anyone to attend to comment on the development of standards. So that’s an option for getting views from outside the membership. And finally, we have groups which we call focus groups and focus groups open to anyone to attend on an equal basis. Members and non members and these focus groups are particularly useful when entering into a new area of work for ITU that perhaps, you know, traditionally ITU wasn’t involved in. But now because because the ICT standards are required. And in that particular area, we need to involve organizations that have traditionally had no involvement in ITU, for example, for inclusive financial inclusion, work, the work on mobile banking, for example, we have a number of central banks participating, payment companies participating that are not members of ITU. And they can do a lot of the initial work on developing a standard before it goes into the formal mechanism in ITU for approval. So it’s it’s very much a bottom up process that we make sure we involve all interested parties. And but finally, it’s the member states that approve the standard which ensures that it is truly an international standard because it’s been approved by 193 member states.
[00:16:13.430] – Xiao Wang
Do you work closely with other standardisation bodies?
[00:16:17.600] – Malcolm Johnson
We work very closely, of course, with other standards, making organizations and especially. The the Internet community more and more, but many of the main standards bodies and of course, the two other international standards bodies that are also based in Geneva, ISO and IEC we work very closely with them as well.
[00:16:46.950] – Xiao Wang
The rapid spread of digital technologies are creating many new opportunities, while in the meantime also widening the digital divide, which is a threat to developing countries and least developing countries. Another question I think lots of our audiences would be interested is about the participation of developing countries in the sustainable ICT development.
[00:17:12.330] – Malcolm Johnson
So because we’re trying to encourage industry from developing countries to participate, traditionally, it’s been the you know, the big players from the developed world that were involved in standards making ITU, but now mean for a lot of effort over the last 10 years into what we call bridging the standards gap. And that’s encouraging industry from the developing world to participate. And of course, those are mainly small and medium enterprises. So we have to make sure the fee is is low enough to enable them to join because they can also contribute in many ways because their requirements in the developing world could be quite different from that in the developed world. We need to develop standards which are applicable to the developing countries. So this is why we need them, and also because through participating in the development of the standard, they’re best placed to actually implement the standard.
[00:18:16.110] – Xiao Wang
Like Mr Johnson mentioned, the development of digitalisation is quite uneven across the globe, according to the ITU, the proportion of people using the Internet was more than 80 percent in Europe, but only just over 28 percent in Africa in twenty nineteen, the least developed countries, only around 19 percent of individuals used the Internet in 2019. On the digital economy side, data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development shows the content created online is highly concentrated in developed countries and those in Asia. But it remains limited in all other developing regions, with North America and Europe together account for almost 80 percent of the global online content creation. Governments are the lead actors behind the development of a just inclusive and sustainable digital transformation. So I asked Mr Johnson what role the national governments need to play for promoting energy efficient ICT technologies.
[00:19:30.350] – Malcolm Johnson
Well, of course, that the member states have a responsibility to address the commitments that have been made by by governments towards the climate change challenge, of course, in particular Paris Agreement and its you and its member states have been very concerned about environmental issues for many years now. Ever since 2007, ITU has been participating in the climate change conferences. And that’s because our member states, one to our member states, are the ministries that are responsible for telecommunications within their country. So they’re well aware, of course, of the important role that ICT can play for mitigating and adapting to climate change and monitoring the climate, but of course, the delegations to climate change conferences come mainly from the environment ministry’s. So we needed to get across in the conferences the importance of ICTs to these delegates that were not truly aware of this major contribution going back, you know, 10, 15 years, so we we started participating from 2007 and running events of the climate change conferences to get this message across. And I think it’s fully understood now, of course, the importance of of ICTs in that particular area or any area to do with environment, which ultimately, of course, is the government’s responsibility, it’s the same when we come to trying to deal with the pollution, not just air pollution, but, you know, pollution of the seas and pollution through e-waste. Tremendous problem that many countries are facing now. So these are all areas that fall into government responsibility. And that’s why we, ITU is continually advocating the better use of our cities to address these these major issues. And the Covid course has shown just how interdependent we are. And really is emphasized the need for multilateral collaboration to deal with these huge challenges facing the world. We often hear when it comes to Covid that you’re only as safe as everyone as everyone else. You’re only safe if everybody else is safe. We’ve been saying that exactly the same thing when it comes to cyber security for many years. It’s the same, exactly the same with cyber security. You’re only safe. Providing everyone else is safe because you can be attacked in the virtual world from anywhere in the world, so this really emphasizes more than ever, I believe, the current situation, the need for multilateralism and the the need for all organizations. Regionally and internationally to work closely together, to bring to bring your own specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication of effort. And pull resources towards the common good. ICTs now have been used by so many different organizations, so many different ministries, that there is a risk of duplication. There is a risk that we will be adopting services and equipment, which is not interoperable. And this is a problem even within nations. You know, we we have now a lot of work going on in the health care sector together with WHO, and it’s one of the problems that WHO is identified as that the lack of standards for data centers used by by hospitals around the world, even hospitals within the same country, often don’t have data centers which can interoperate with each other, WHO, because they don’t have a private sector membership, work closely with with ITU now, to develop standards using our private sector members to develop the standards, to meet their requirements to overcome these these challenges. So this huge responsibilities that fall on member states and of course, as I said, we’re fortunate tonight, you do have. The member states, as well as the private sector, as well as the academia, civil society, all working together to towards you know, meeting these challenges which are increasing day by day.
[00:25:42.940] – Xiao Wang
Now that we’re talking about the responsibilities from member states in terms of promoting energy efficient ICT development, I think it is worth mentioning the NDCs for those of you who might not be very familiar with this term. Here is the explanation I found on the website of UNFCCC. Nationally determined contributions the NDCs are at the heart of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of these long term goals. NDCs embodied efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Paris agreement requires each party to prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs it intends to achieve. Mr. Johnson, how do you see that energy efficient data centers and see development play a role in the NDCs and where can we start?
[00:26:43.670] – Malcolm Johnson
We have this measurement of energy effectiveness of data centers, as we know, PUE Power Usage Effectiveness, which which looks at the the the power use for computing in the data center compared to the power used just for keeping it cool. So that’s a measure of effectiveness, which is very important that I believe in. This is something that governments need to look at because it’s going to have a substantial impact on energy consumption. Uh oh, by the by the sector and by operations within countries. So those are some of the areas that know the national governments need to look at and this is why, because in ITU we have the member states, although they don’t necessarily get into the development of the technical standards, the details they do set out the requirements, the requirements for energy efficiency set out by by the the member states in ITU. And so we when we develop standards in for data centers, energy efficiency, of course, is one of the prime interests from member states perspective.
[00:28:28.290] – Malcolm Johnson
So we we have a number of standards that we have already developed on data centers to assess energy efficiency and their their own and the and the thirteen hundred series. So anyone with an interest can look at these standards, by the way, are all accessible on the ITU website and there are downloadable free of charge. So some of the I just mentioned some of these can be found on the ITU website. So this ITU Eldard 13 or to for example, is the assessment of energy efficiency on infrastructure and data centers and telecom centers. So that’s one particularly important standard that we have. But we have an over arching standard, which is ITU TL thirteen hundred as best practices for great data centers. Then LT ITUTL thirteen eighty one is smart energy solutions for data centers and we also, of course develop develop reports in this area and toolkits. They’re also available on the on the ITU website. And, of course, can be found and access free of charge. And we also have the outputs from various workshops that we run on these on this issue and other issues. And, of course, we’re working very closely with the U.N. Environment Protection Organization and will be issuing further toolkits in this area, especially on the on the data center cooling, so there’s a lot of information to be found on the ITU website. And as I said, any of these standards can be can be accessed and downloaded free of charge.
[00:31:02.570] – Xiao Wang
One of the energy efficient solutions for countries to develop sustainable data centers and our sector is through liquid cooling. We touched upon a bit at the beginning of our talk, and now I want to bring the focus back to liquid cooling technology. I have been challenged by this question. Do we need the liquid cooling technology if we are able to produce enough renewable energies to power the data centers? Does this do make sense for us to try to reduce data center cooling demand? What is your opinion?
[00:31:37.530] – Malcolm Johnson
You know, the the advice we’re getting from climate experts, is that where not heading in a very good direction. Despite all the efforts that have been made. You know, we’re nowhere near to reaching the limit on temperature increase that is going to be necessary and nowhere near reducing carbon emissions and to the extent that’s going to be necessary to avoid future catastrophes. So any possible reduction in energy generates an energy consumption is going to be a contributor to to that goal of reaching what the climate experts say we need to reach. So clearly, despite moves to renewable energy, et cetera, et cetera, there’s no area that can’t be that can be overlooked. And the the energy consumption in data centers is substantial and needs to be reduced. And this, we hope, will be one way that we can do that through the use of liquid cooling.
[00:33:13.130] – Xiao Wang
The choice of energy efficient solutions and renewable energy is never an either or question. All the areas that could lead to positive returns should be explored in the case of cooling technologies, especially liquid cooling. There are still a long way for development. It is not only about the technical deployment of this technology in traditional data centers, but also the lack of industry standards for liquid cooling that will inhibit the development of the technology. This calls for an urgent need for relevant industry standards organizations to improve the standardization of liquid cooling, establishing clear technical requirements for all aspects of this technology.
[00:34:02.480] – Xiao Wang
As we’re proposing to the end of this podcast I want to use the time to ask one question about the future. What is your vision for a liquid cooling development for 2030?
[00:34:14.600] – Malcolm Johnson
Well, it’s very impressive the what the prospects are. I believe it’s a very important area that we need to address as the energy consumption and data centers, which has been increasing substantially over recent years. So I would hope that through liquid cooling, we can ensure that data centers of the future will be far more energy efficient and much less harm to the environment and the challenge of climate change.
[00:34:55.820] – Xiao Wang
Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for sharing your insights of energy efficient solutions for ICT development and the role of ITU for facilitating multilateral cooperation and the private sector engagement in this field. So, guys, if you are interested in learning more about liquid cooling in data centers, we have jointly developed a brief with ITU and ODCC introducing the liquid cooling technology development in China. And you can find this brief on
[00:35:32.470] – Xiao Wang
That’s it for today’s episode of Digi Green series. Be sure to sign up to our e-mail list at and follow us in your favorite podcast app so that you don’t miss out our next episode. I’m Xiao wishing you happy podcasting from Copenhagen.

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