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Digital technologies can act as important enabler to address climate change

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As the first week of COP 27 comes to an end in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt climate change and climate financing in particular has taken center stage. COP 27 or “the African COP,” as it is being called, presents an unprecedented opportunity for a unified African voice to move beyond talk to concrete action on financing for climate adaptation and mitigation.

The key topic of conversations has centered are the extensive financing options available to fund climate change responses and technologies. Overall, there is agreement that financing benefits and costs may not yet be where it should there. However, there is consensus that better structures and solutions needs to be put together to meaningfully scale solutions to address climate change.

Without significant reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), it will continue to push millions of people into poverty. Combatting climate change requires concerted efforts by all countries to reduce emissions and build resilience through climate adaptation. Digital technologies are important tools for achieving these goals, as recognized in many national climate commitments and plans to achieve the Paris Agreement.

Climate action is imperative to secure future socioeconomic development in Africa. This coupled with increased digitalization means that telecommunications operators need to balance the need to connect more people, with the need to reduce their impact on the environment. Every additional connected person, device represents a potential increase in energy usage, and therefore the industry needs to find ways to increase efficiency, reuse infrastructure and parts, and invest in renewable energy sources to mitigate this.

According to Nompilo Morafo, Chief Sustainability & Corporate Affairs Officer at MTN Group, transformative technology is required to enable the development and deployment of solutions that provide for core human needs, while being aligned with sustainability goals. “For this to succeed, we need to start with the end goal in mind. As MTN we believe that everyone deserves to have the benefit of a modern connected life. As we build and operate the telecommunications infrastructure to drive greater digital and financial inclusion, we believe that our growth and success should not come at the expense of the future of our planet. This is one of the reasons we have set science-based targets to achieve net zero emissions by 2040.””

Digital technologies, if used right, have the power to reduce emissions from multiple sectors—such as energy, transportation, agriculture, and urban development—and to enhance climate change adaptation across sectors. Digital solutions can help countries adapt to the gradual impacts of climate change (for example by enabling data-driven agricultural services that enhances yields during droughts) as well as to manage climate shocks. Data and digital solutions also play an important role before, during and after climate shocks by enabling weather monitoring, disaster risk management, early warning systems, and social protection systems.

With technology continuously evolving, there has been an increase in the use of Internet of Things (IoT), cloud services, including edge cloud, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). “Because of the inclusion of these advanced technologies, we need to continuously evolve our use cases and applications, and in the same way we use these technologies to advance connectivity, we should use it to advance real and tangible solutions to not only address climate change, but also development to the benefit of the people of the continent,” she says.

Each country in Africa faces different nuances, therefore there cannot be a one size fits all approach to solutions. “Countries face different levels of maturity, diverse regulatory environments and evolving stakeholder needs, all which influences the pace and adoption of green technologies,” says Morafo. “While the ultimate goal is to reach critical scale, we need to be realistic and recognize that this may take time.”

Digital transformation and technology innovation as drivers of sustainability

Covid-19 served as a catalyst in the acceleration of digital transformation across the world. “It forced many people to move online to do their work, regardless of location. Children were forced to move online for learning purposes and governments had to digitize basic services to ensure citizens could continue to run their lives as normally as possible,” she says. “Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum and Accenture suggest that digital technologies could deliver up to one-fifth of all the reductions needed to achieve the 2050 net-zero goals in energy, materials and mobility. Furthermore, digitalizing 15 – 25% of global agriculture in this way could increase global production by 300 million metric tonnes by 2030, and reduce water consumption by up to 150 billion cubic metres every year,” says Morafo. Therefore, finding solutions to climate change is inextricably linked to digitalization.

A proactive and integrated approach is needed

The digital economy relies on devices and networks whose production, use, and disposal require energy. Today, about 1.5 to 4 percent of global emissions stem from digital infrastructure and applications, a level on par with the airline industry. To contribute proportionally to the reduction of global warming, GHG emissions along the digital value chain must be reduced by half by 2030. Reaching that goal hinges on greater use of renewable energy and on improving energy efficiency through innovation, better processes, and better design of equipment and devices.

This dual transition therefore requires a proactive and integrated approach striving to achieve a balance between the two goals of pervasive connectivity and sustainability. In the past few years, MTN took decisive steps towards its commitment to achieve Net Zero by 2040. “This included improving our GHG emission measurement methodologies, employing green technologies across our operating companies, and engaging with various partners to reduce our emissions throughout the supply chain,” says Morafo. “We have also focused on introducing suppliers into our supply chain who offer our operating companies more sustainable and greener technologies.”

“Our eyes are fixed on doing all we can to achieve net zero by 2040. This will be achieved by working with our partners to improve network energy efficiency, that is, ‘more bits and less watts’, so that we can meet users’ requirements for high-speed broadband experience while consuming less energy. And at the same time introducing even more renewable solutions to diversity our energy mix,” she concludes.

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