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Use of ICT for climate change mitigation

19 May 2009

Shahriar Hossain

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Increasing GHG emissions and the resulting sea level rise is posing a serious threat to low lying countries like Bangladesh. Shahriar Hossain writes that ICTs can be a potent, cross-cutting tool to limit and ultimately reduce GHG emissions across sectors.

Mango buds, honeysuckle and mustard-flowers are blooming earlier in the winter. Butterflies that can't stand a too-cold winter have taken up residence in rural Bangladesh. Foggy days are longer than those in the past and the northern part of Bangladesh is no more cooler. Temperature levels are creeping up in Panchagar, Dinajpur and Rajshahi. No vegetation and crops are to be seen in our coastal line round the year. Cyclones and floods are becoming common and frequent in number every year.

These indications of a warming climate already have been measured in Bangladesh. The earth's climate has changed throughout history. From glacial periods (or "ice ages") where ice covered significant portions of the earth, to interglacial periods where ice retreated to the poles or melted entirely - the climate has continuously changed. Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to the sea level rise (SLR) in the Bay of Bengal on account of the low-lying deltaic environment.

The tropical cyclones, which strike the coastal areas periodically, create misery and loss of life, property and ecosystem damages. The total area of the coastal belt is about 39,300 sq km (27 percent of the country's total area), and more than 29 million people (22 percent of the national population) live in this fragile and vulnerable area. Climate change may influence erosion, accretion, floods, water logging, cyclones and tidal surges in our coastal region.

Scientists have been able to piece together a picture of the Earth's climate dating back decades to millions of years ago by analysing a number of surrogate or "proxy" sea level rises because warmer water takes up more room than colder water, a process known as thermal expansion.

Melting glaciers compound the problem by dumping even more fresh water into the oceans. Rising seas threaten to inundate low-lying areas and islands, threaten dense coastal populations, erode shorelines, damage property and destroy ecosystems such as mangroves and wetlands that protect coasts against storms.

Sea levels have risen between four and eight inches in the past 100 years. Current projections suggest that sea levels could continue to rise between 4 inches and 36 inches over the next 100 years. A 36-inch increase in sea levels would swamp all low-lying areas and islands around the globe including southern Bangladesh and also every city on the east coast of the United States, from Miami to Boston.

Worldwide, approximately 100 million people live within three feet of sea level. Sea level rise associated with climate change could displace tens of millions of people in low-lying areas especially in developing countries. Inhabitants of some small island countries that rest barely above the existing sea level are already abandoning their islands, some of the world's first climate change refugees.

Unfortunately, however, it is precisely this topography that makes Bangladesh particularly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change. If these environmental effects converge with the country's high population and widespread poverty, they will create a disaster.

Bangladesh lies on a flat, alluvial plain. It is neighbored by India on three sides, while its southern border dissolves into the Bay of Bengal. Two mighty rivers, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, flow through Bangladesh and fan out like tassels into the Bay. This low delta and its beautiful mangrove islands are constantly transforming and shifting with cyclones, rains, and dry periods.

The soft, malleable coast is vulnerable to rising seas. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop today, scientists believe that warming already underway will cause seas to rise between one and two inches over the next century. If nothing is done to curb emissions, sea levels could climb more than three feet. If this happens, 15% of Bangladesh could be under water. The mangrove forests of the low-lying Sundarban islands, a world heritage site, as well as the Royal Bengal tiger and hundreds of bird species may disappear.

Mounting sea levels and loss of land will also create human disasters and dilemma. Where will the tens of millions of internally displaced people go and how will they live? What will they drink when salt water contaminates fresh water supplies? Who will provide health care to combat the diseases that are sure to spread?

Bangladesh's food supply is already threatened by flooding due to melting glaciers in some areas and droughts due to heat in others. Moreover, the sea storms and monsoons that routinely pummel Bangladesh are intensifying because of climate change. Life in Bangladesh is already harsh. In an overpopulated earth, millions of people may have no choice but to live on the fringes of habitable environments. This in turn can severely increase the human toll of environmental disasters.

ICTs for GHS mitigation

As a developing nation we need to continue industrial development for our economic growth and poverty reduction; but this will contribute to gas emissions for global warming. So what do we do?

ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) can be a sustainable way of mitigation of global green house gas emissions and climate change threats. It is estimated that ICTs contribute around 2 to 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. These percentages are likely to grow as ICTs become more widely available. At the same time, ICTs can be a major linchpin in the effort to combat climate change and serve as a potent, cross-cutting tool to limit and ultimately reduce these emissions across economic and social sectors.

Through the development of more energy efficient devices, applications and networks that are alternatives to today's waste sources such as transport and travel, as well as their environmentally sound disposal, ICT can be an enabling technology to stabilise and reduce emissions in all sectors.

Information and communication technologies have a critical role to play in combating climate change through the reduction of GHG emissions. The increased use of ICTs contributes to global warming, as witness the millions of television sets and computers that are never fully turned off at night in homes and offices. But ICTs can also be a key part of the solution, because of the role they play in monitoring, mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The ICT sector itself (in this definition, telecommunications, computing and the internet, but excluding broadcasting) contributes around 2 to 2.5 percent of GHG, at just under one Gigatonne of CO2 equivalent. The main constituent (40 percent) of this is the energy requirements of personal computers and data monitors, with data centres contributing a further 23 percent. Fixed and mobile telecommunications contribute an estimated 24 percent of the total.

The science of climate change has benefited greatly from the parallel development of ICTs. International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) work in this area focuses on the use of ICTs (including weather satellites, radio and telecommunication technologies and global standards) for weather forecasting, climate monitoring and predicting, detecting and mitigating the effects of natural disasters.

The role of ICTs and of ITU's work in the area of satellites and radars in weather and climate monitoring is clearly shown in the structure of the World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) World Weather Watch (WWW), which is used for climate monitoring and control, weather forecasting, remote sensing and disaster prediction and detection.

It is high time to create enabling conditions in Bangladesh for promoting adaptation to climate change and climate variability in national policies and plans, and also to create awareness of the phenomena at the local community level with special focus on the residents of the north, south and eastern areas.

The impact of global warming on the world's climate will continue, even if the increase in GHG emissions is stabilised. Further, the impact is likely to be highly uneven, with low-lying coastal areas (such as small island developing states, the Bangladesh delta and the Netherlands) at risk because of rising sea levels and risk to food security, health hazards; a growing number of environmental refugees; and increased pressure on sources of fresh water and vulnerable ecosystems such as coral reefs, tundra and coastal wetlands. Adaptation to climate change is thus a key necessity for us and the global community at large.

The Government alone cannot address the response measures to adaptation of ICTs for mitigation of climate change impact in Bangladesh. The civil society, NGOs, local communities will have to be sensitised and prepared to work with the agencies of Government. More importantly, local agencies must be kept in the picture as important participants. Public awareness, education and training will be a most critical tool to involve all sections of the public in the implementation process.

Shahriar Hossain is an ecologist and journalist.

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