This blog is part of the IEEE IoT Brain Trust series. This collection of blogs will explore IoT in the industry. 

The carbon footprint for information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) is already globally significant and growing at an unsustainable rate. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), with billions of devices talking to each other, is likely to accelerate that trend.

In 2007, ICT’s global CO2 footprint accounted for 2% of all emissions, or about 830 metric tons of CO2, comparable to the aviation industry, which is widely cited for its emissions. ICT’s share of global emissions is projected to double to 4% by 2020, a mere four years away.

Though humans and their direct behavior once accounted for much of ICT use, the IoT will likely drive the need to radically expand the capacity of data networks, while also requiring that ICT’s energy efficiency increases to a heretofore unprecedented degree.

Forecasts spell out the nature of our challenge. Global use of the Internet, which relies on ICT, is forecast to grow 30% to 40% per year. If this forecast holds, the Internet will experience 30 times its current traffic in 10 years. (Due to compound growth, that equates to 1,000 times its current traffic in 20 years.) In only ten years, if we do nothing, ICT will consume about 60% of global energy resources. If we optimize energy efficiency in ICT by a factor of 1,000 over 20 years, still we will see no net change in that sector’s energy use or emissions.

A sense of urgency

This somewhat dire portrait should instill urgency in everyone working in the Green ICT arena – we really are in a race against time – and I’ll share my perspective on efforts and initiatives to which I contribute. Yet we must keep in mind the promise of an expanded role for ICT and burgeoning IoT in our daily lives while we toil to make them affordable and sustainable.

Data analytics that result from human-device, human-machine, device-to-device and machine-to-machine interactions will fuel smart grid, smart cities, smart transportation – indeed, intelligence, insights and forecasting across human activities and industry verticals. These insights are likely to accelerate the development of energy efficiency in all our endeavors, processes and technologies. Paradoxically, the increased use of ICT puts further pressure on applying energy efficiency to ICT as well.

More capacity, less energy

Perhaps the biggest challenge is to design sustainable and affordable data networks to accommodate the exponentially greater data flows we expect. We need 1,000 times more network capacity in the coming 10 years, but with the same energy consumption, or less, than we see today. Two related challenges arise for Green ICT: ICT applied for greater energy efficiency in all things, and energy efficiency for ICT. In the EIT Digital 5GrEEn project, between 2013 and 2015, we developed a clean slate network architecture for Green 5G mobile networks showing that 90% power consumption reduction is possible by logically separating control and data planes, thinning the control and signaling layer, and by data traffic adaptive and dynamic operation of systems. However, this is just a small part of the ICT systems.

A holistic view

Thus we must look at energy efficiency across the board. As we do so, Green ICT becomes a multidisciplinary effort. That requires collaboration and coordination, which are among the objectives of the IEEE Green ICT Initiative. The Initiative is intended to bring together diverse technical domains within and outside of IEEE, to raise everyone’s awareness of the challenges outside their own domains and to connect individuals in each domain with their colleagues in other domains.

One example of the points I’m making comes from my own work in next-generation communication networks. Mobile network operators must increase the capacity of their networks, say, 1,000-fold, without increasing their carbon footprint, and do this affordably to remain in business. While human-device interaction increases, device-to-device data flows are going to explode.

As we move to a network of networks, a system of systems, the distributed nature of networks will lead to them being more or less unmanaged, controlled by different entities in different domains. Imagine the interconnections between smart power networks, smart cities, communications, smart transportation, smart manufacturing, etc. So you can imagine the challenges we face in designing a sustainable network of networks. We really do need to take a holistic view across all domains.

One key aspect to making global progress on these many fronts is the creation of standards. Multi-system standards that lead to sustainability and energy efficiency are, however, in their infancy, though initiatives are underway.

Future strategies

Looking ahead, I can see short-term and longer-term goals. Let’s acknowledge that today’s systems were designed for performance, not energy efficiency. Now sustainability has become a critical driver. So, in the short-term, we’ll seek to increase the number of functions in existing systems that can go into “sleep” mode and work more efficiently. In the longer-term we want to redesign the system of systems to be intelligent, adaptive and optimized based on both performance and sustainability. For example in the SooGREEN project, our research group – in  KTH together with the telecommunications operator Orange and other project partners – is focusing on green system design and several systems to integrate: Smart energy networks, telecom networks, content delivery networks. In this project we have researchers and experts coming from different areas such as IoT services, content delivery services, power systems and telecom networks aiming for energy efficient operation of all these together. 

In the future we will see variations of sustainable developments in different parts of the world. How adoption of sustainable ICT practices, technologies and standards plays out will be fascinating. Developed nations with legacy infrastructure may undergo incremental renewal, while developing nations with ICT green fields may leapfrog ahead, by necessity. But I have little doubt that energy efficiency across the board will inform our collective efforts.