WCIT-12 enshrines environmental sustainability in global ICT treaty

e-wasteDelegates at WCIT-12 have sounded global agreement on the need for the next phase of ICT development to prioritize environmental sustainability, reaching consensus on the inclusion of a provision targeting “energy efficiency and e-waste” in drafts of what will become 2012’s set of International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs).

The ITRs provide countries across the world with high-level guidelines in which to frame ICT policy and regulation. 2012’s ITRs will be the first to include an environmental aspect, signifying ITU Member States’ commitment to environmentally sustainable development and their intent to tackle one of the most pressing questions of our time.

The need to improve energy efficiency is now well understood across industry sectors.

Primarily this is as a means to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the business imperative is also there with significant cost savings possible. New technologies such as next generation networks (NGNs) are expected by some commentators to reduce energy consumption by 40 per cent compared to the public switched telephone network (PSTN). And while ICTs clearly contribute to GHG emissions there are studies that ICTs present a valuable opportunity to combat climate change through their ability to enable a 15 per cent reduction in GHG emissions across other industry sectors.

Addressing this and the issue of e-waste are two sides of the same coin, especially considered against the backdrop of a rapidly progressing ICT industry, increasing consumption of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and a marked increase in e-waste, which, as a result of global mismanagement, has led to negative environmental and health effects, particularly in developing countries.

Studies in Ghana carried out under the Basel Convention’s E-Waste Africa Project, which has received financial assistance from the EU as well as other donors, revealed that in 2009 around 70 per cent of all imports were accounted for by secondhand EEE. However a significant proportion of this, around 30 per cent, was determined to be non-functioning, and hence should have been defined as e-waste.

The enormous resource impact of EEE and e-waste is often overlooked.

To put it into perspective, a tonne of gold ore yields just 5 grammes of gold, whereas a tonne of used mobile phones yields a staggering 400 grammes. Electronic devices can contain up to 60 different elements, but illegal dumping and deficiencies in collection methods and recycling technologies have caused the loss of the majority of these valuable resources when equipment reaches the end of its life.

Pending approval at the final #WCIT12 Plenary, a provision of Article 8 encourages Member States to cooperate in adopting best-practice energy efficiency and e-waste policies, regulations and business practices.

In the language of what will soon be an international treaty, “Member States are encouraged to adopt energy efficiency and e-waste best practices taking into account relevant ITU-T Recommendations.”

The move follows the agreement at November’s WTSA-12 on a Resolution on e-waste, giving further impetus to ITU’s standardization work on the subject and requesting ITU’s standardization and development sectors, ITU-T and ITU-D, to assist Member States in instituting policy frameworks that limit e-waste’s negative environmental effects.

These calls strengthen ITU’s mandate as it relates to ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change; offering support for the standardization work undertaken by ITU-T Study Group 5 and paving the way for more international standards (ITU-T Recommendations) on energy efficiency and e-waste.

Earlier this year ITU published a Toolkit on Environmental Sustainability for the ICT Sector, developed by ITU-T in partnership with over 50 ICT companies and environmental organizations. One of its six parts is a Toolkit on End of Life Management for ICT Equipment which outlines ICTs’ various End-of-Life (EOL) stages, accompanying legislation, and best-practice models for organizations to establish frameworks for the environmentally-sound management of EOL ICT equipment.

The Toolkit was one of sixteen new reports launched at ITU’s 2nd Green Standards Week. All reports are available here.

For more information:

ITU portal on ICTs and Climate Change here

ITU-T activities on ICTs, the Environment and Climate Change here

mjohnson-cvBy: Malcolm Johnson

Malcolm Johnson was elected Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in 2006 in Antalya, Turkey and was re-elected at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference 2010 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

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