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Is staying online costing the earth? New inquiry finds that digital growth needs policy frameworks to control threat to energy efficiency

Is staying online costing the earth? New inquiry finds that digital growth needs policy frameworks to control threat to energy efficiency

20th February 2018

Policy Connect says Government can support the UK’s leading digital economy to grow further through energy-saving technology innovation.

  • Government and industry must ensure our digital backbone is both efficient and effective into the future – if we get it wrong the ever-increasing demand for all things ‘smart’ could cause a surge in energy use
  • ICT solutions have the potential to enable a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of up to 15.3% by 2030
  • The public sector, with its influential spending power, must lead by example in taking forward an ‘energy efficiency by design’ approach to delivering digital services

The cross-party inquiry was co-chaired by Antoinette Sandbach, Conservative MP for Eddisbury, and Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge.

As we move into the era of the Internet of Things it is time to take stock of the energy and carbon cost of being increasingly on-line. High energy bills, new efficient ICT technologies, and regulations have kept the proportion of electricity used by ICT products and services in check. However, there is a risk that with a growing dependence on connected devices and digital technologies, energy efficiency gains will stall and our carbon footprint from using the net may soar.  

Of the inquiry, Co-Chair Antoinette Sandbach MP, said: “I’m delighted to be working with Policy Connect on this project. New digital technologies can play an important role in combatting climate change, as well as reducing energy bills. I hope that this report will be the first step to driving greater energy efficiency in our use of digital services and encouraging economic growth through more digital products and services that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

Policy Connect’s research highlights a knowledge gap in government for managing digital energy usage and taking advantage of new technology to cut carbon footprints. Gaps include technical expertise on digital trends and a lack of data collection, monitoring and analysis. It also uncovers that the private sector has led much of the way on ensuring improvements to technology, consolidation of ICT facilities and improved energy management.  The government needs to lead the way as it develops digital services to citizens which will themselves increase Internet use.  The government should also help consumers to understand better their energy footprint from being online, such as through stronger energy labelling systems which already exist for kitchen appliances.

In the Clean Growth Strategy, Government has committed to the same (or greater) energy efficiency standards as those in Europe. The UK must continue to develop policy capabilities around technological energy efficiency and drive greater efficiency in the sector in order for the UK both to remain competitive and to continue to reduce UK carbon emissions. This will require the UK to retain and develop policy expertise.

Co-Chair Daniel Zeichner added: "This report on the energy consumption and carbon emissions of the internet is an important step in making policy makers aware of the energy consequences of the internet. It should be taken into account by all those working on energy efficiency and digital transformation programmes. As we move to a more digital economy, we need to ensure that these recommendations are built in to the design, implementation and delivery of services from the start and that our digital backbone is both efficient and effective in the future.”

Government has identified 18 criteria to help them create and run digital services, for example, considering privacy and security issues and user experience. Given the importance of ensuring that energy efficiency gains continue, Policy Connect reports it is essential to take an ‘energy efficiency by design’ approach to designing, building and operating digital services: this should be high on the government’s list of criteria.