The role of ICT in driving increased greenhouse gas emissions has been well documented. However a new report produced under the auspices of the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union argues that the ICT sector needs to prepare to adapt to climate change in order to preserve vital communications infrastructure from both the short- and long-term impacts of global warming.
"ICT sector responses to climate change involve actions aimed at mitigating its effects... monitoring climatic trends... and adapting to its impacts (e.g. by helping to reduce the vulnerability of various sectors, strengthening networking, decision making and resource access for adaptation)," states the ITU report, Resilient pathways: The adaptation of the ICT sector to climate change.
However, the report adds that "much less is known" about "adaptive strategies that the ICT sector itself could adopt to better prepare for, respond and adjust to more frequent and intense climatic impacts".
Speed of innovation, smaller infrastructure than sectors such as energy and logistics, and "reliance on a combined network instead of individual structures" are all factors in favour of ICT when it comes to adapting to climate change.
However, the growth in frequency and impact of extreme weather-related events, such as heat waves, flooding, extreme winds and landslides, and a rise in sea level can still disrupt ICT services and degrade comms infrastructure, increasing operational costs and cutting revenue.
"The magnitude of climate change impacts, coupled with the increasing pervasiveness of the ICT sector in the global networked society and the growing reliance on its services, evidence the urgency of re-thinking and adjusting... to reduce the sector’s vulnerability to climatic impacts, to improve its responses to short- and long-term effects, and to benefit from business opportunities that may arise with change," states the report.
ICT needs to adopt the "notion of resilience" and take a holistic sector-based approach. Backbone networks require redundancy and comms infrastructure should be decoupled from the electricity grid as much as possible. Backup power generators or solar-powered batteries should be deployed at mobile towers, the report argues.
Measures to increase the robustness of telco infrastructure can also include running cables underground wherever possible, or replacing some vulnerable sections of wired networks with low-powered wireless.
The telco sector needs to undergo a "comprehensive assessment" of its resilience to current conditions and predicted future climate conditions.
The ITU report advocates that new standards be developed for the ICT sector to promote increased resilience.
"Available evidence suggests that climate change will cause unavoidable impacts that will affect the ICT sector both directly and indirectly. Within this context, adaptive practices will increasingly become part of the 'new normal' for business operations around the world, including those of the ICT sector," the report concludes.