Anthony Louis D'Agostino

 

The Association for Progressive Communications and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries provide a welcomed overview of the state of green ICT in their jointly produced Global Information Society Watch 2010 (GISW2010). Divided into country reports and thematic reports written by some of the leading thinkers and organizations in this emerging space, this year’s GISW leaves a singular impression. ICTs have significant potential to foster sustainable development and that potential is barely being exploited. At the same time, the rising tide of ICTs is responsible for a variety of environmental and health-related consequences.

The thematic reports opening this year’s GISW provide a thorough overview of the bidirectional relationship between ICTs and climate change. Additional reports address other sustainable development applications that ICTs might fulfill, from e-government to tele-commuting, to internet-enabled activism. Peet du Plooy from South Africa’s Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) paints an alluring vision of the coming smart economy, with its smart grids, smart meters, and plug-in vehicles, but when juxtaposed against the country’s dysfunctional power sector illustrates the gulf between aspiration and reality. While du Plooy’s sketch is utopian, so too is the notion that green ICT will effortlessly solve climate change.

It will make its contribution, but not without hiccups and spillovers along the way. After reading through the 53 national reports, that truth seems unassailable. In report after report, electronic waste rises to the top of the list of ICT-related concerns and in so doing introduces another gulf: that between developed and developing countries. The gulf is wide and determines the choice of language. Europeans talk about extended producer responsibility, green public procurement, and video-conferencing. These words are absent from the developing country reports. They are instead filled with descriptions of informal TV recycling on city streets, manufacturing workers at risk of toxics exposure, and obsolete ICTs carelessly thrown into landfills.

The divide in reality is not as clear-cut as this. Developing country reports provided numerous examples of using GIS for natural resource management, developing communication networks for disaster risk reduction, and pollution monitoring conducted by citizens armed with little more than mobile phones. Yet these positive examples get drowned out amidst the millions of tons of e-waste produced each year, much of it improperly managed. The Basel Convention was designed to defeat the practice of exporting electronic wastes, but the reports tell otherwise. The wastes are simply exported as ‘second-hand goods,’ despite being barely useable.

The GISW2010 succeeds in spotlighting several immediate needs. First, improved data collection on e-waste volumes is essential. This will require implementing monitoring systems which in many cases are not in place, but is the necessary first step towards recognizing the problem’s magnitude and establishing reduction targets. Second, governments are not nearly as receptive to the issue of electronic waste as civil society is. Case studies of examples where CSOs have effectively engaged government departments to mobilize green ICTs and safeguard the environment would serve as helpful guides for organizations where ICT policies are weak or absent. Roadmaps help and lesson-sharing can assist organizations in areas where ICT policy is only beginning to percolate. Third, the private sector needs to be engaged, but how? There seems to be large scope for social entrepreneurship in solving some of the e-waste problems as well as disseminating ICT4D applications. Where government response has been quiet, the private sector may more reliably fill the gap. Again, case studies and anatomies of success would be useful for interested CSOs.

Future GISW volumes would benefit from a few additional items. A summary of the growing literature assessing the environmental benefits of ICTs would be fitting. Do participatory pollution monitoring programs work? Does e-government contribute to GHG reductions? A synthesis of these findings would be extremely fruitful towards gaining a more balanced view of the ecological benefits that can be expected of ICTs. Another area would be in examining ICTs and environmental sustainability through a gendered lens. The Association for Progressive Communications and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries provide a welcomed overview of the state of green ICT in their jointly produced Global Information Society Watch 2010 (GISW2010). Divided into country reports and thematic reports written by some of the leading thinkers and organizations in this emerging space, this year’s GISW leaves a singular impression. ICTs have significant potential to foster sustainable development and that potential is barely being exploited. At the same time, the rising tide of ICTs is responsible for a variety of environmental and health-related consequences.

The thematic reports opening this year’s GISW provide a thorough overview of the bidirectional relationship between ICTs and climate change. Additional reports address other sustainable development applications that ICTs might fulfill, from e-government to tele-commuting, to internet-enabled activism. Peet du Plooy from South Africa’s Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) paints an alluring vision of the coming smart economy, with its smart grids, smart meters, and plug-in vehicles, but when juxtaposed against the country’s dysfunctional power sector illustrates the gulf between aspiration and reality. While du Plooy’s sketch is utopian, so too is the notion that green ICT will effortlessly solve climate change.

It will make its contribution, but not without hiccups and spillovers along the way. After reading through the 53 national reports, that truth seems unassailable. In report after report, electronic waste rises to the top of the list of ICT-related concerns and in so doing introduces another gulf: that between developed and developing countries. The gulf is wide and determines the choice of language. Europeans talk about extended producer responsibility, green public procurement, and video-conferencing. These words are absent from the developing country reports. They are instead filled with descriptions of informal TV recycling on city streets, manufacturing workers at risk of toxics exposure, and obsolete ICTs carelessly thrown into landfills.

The divide in reality is not as clear-cut as this. Developing country reports provided numerous examples of using GIS for natural resource management, developing communication networks for disaster risk reduction, and pollution monitoring conducted by citizens armed with little more than mobile phones. Yet these positive examples get drowned out amidst the millions of tons of e-waste produced each year, much of it improperly managed. The Basel Convention was designed to defeat the practice of exporting electronic wastes, but the reports tell otherwise. The wastes are simply exported as ‘second-hand goods,’ despite being barely useable.

The GISW2010 succeeds in spotlighting several immediate needs. First, improved data collection on e-waste volumes is essential. This will require implementing monitoring systems which in many cases are not in place, but is the necessary first step towards recognizing the problem’s magnitude and establishing reduction targets. Second, governments are not nearly as receptive to the issue of electronic waste as civil society is. Case studies of examples where CSOs have effectively engaged government departments to mobilize green ICTs and safeguard the environment would serve as helpful guides for organizations where ICT policies are weak or absent. Roadmaps help and lesson-sharing can assist organizations in areas where ICT policy is only beginning to percolate. Third, the private sector needs to be engaged, but how? There seems to be large scope for social entrepreneurship in solving some of the e-waste problems as well as disseminating ICT4D applications. Where government response has been quiet, the private sector may more reliably fill the gap. Again, case studies and anatomies of success would be useful for interested CSOs.

Future GISW volumes would benefit from a few additional items. A summary of the growing literature assessing the environmental benefits of ICTs would be fitting. Do participatory pollution monitoring programs work? Does e-government contribute to GHG reductions? A synthesis of these findings would be extremely fruitful towards gaining a more balanced view of the ecological benefits that can be expected of ICTs. Another area would be in examining ICTs and environmental sustainability through a gendered lens. I saw only one mention in the entire report and would be interested to read more about how disposal or manufacturing practices disproportionately affect women, as was claimed. Lastly, though the number of country reports exceeds that of previous GISWs, filling the void of Canada, China, Germany, and the United States would be very instructive. These countries are not only key players because of the volume of their ICT usage, but are also places where some of the most innovative practices may be taking place.

I applaud APC and Hivos for producing this engaging volume and genuinely hope it serves as a tool in supporting policy responses that both unleash the environmental gains green ICTs can produce, but also taming the excesses intrinsically tied to the product lifecycle.

I saw only one mention in the entire report and would be interested to read more about how disposal or manufacturing practices disproportionately affect women, as was claimed. Lastly, though the number of country reports exceeds that of previous GISWs, filling the void of Canada, China, Germany, and the United States would be very instructive. These countries are not only key players because of the volume of their ICT usage, but are also places where some of the most innovative practices may be taking place.

I applaud APC and Hivos for producing this engaging volume and genuinely hope it serves as a tool in supporting policy responses that both unleash the environmental gains green ICTs can produce, but also taming the excesses intrinsically tied to the product lifecycle.

Anthony Louis D'Agostino
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
National University of Singapore

— Anthony Louis D'Agostino

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