How China sees its technology contributing to Net Zero

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton July 26, 2022
China may be one of the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but there’s also an argument that it could help lead the way towards Net Zero.

An image of the Shanghai skyline at night
(Image by Leslin_Liu from Pixabay )

China has long been the planet’s biggest source of carbon emissions. It churns out well over 27 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases – more than the next four countries combined. Together, mass urbanization and an energy sector that remains overly reliant on coal mean that China emits over 7.4 metric tons of CO2 per capita. Even in COVID year one, 2020, China emitted 10.67 billion tons of CO2, according to Statista: a year-on-year increase, while most countries’ emissions fell.

However, China is also a major source of innovation in green technology and has made a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060. According to a May 2022 Bloomberg report, that commitment is starting to bear fruit: carbon output fell by 1.4 percent in Q1 this year, the third successive quarter of reduction. Whether that is because of government plans to boost clean energy and rein in the property sector in its megacities, or mainly due to government-imposed COVID lockdowns, remains to be seen.

But how seriously does China’s ICT industry take the problem?

First, let’s look at alternative finance. Until Beijing clamped down on cryptocurrencies last year, China was the epicentre of Bitcoin mining, with roughly two-thirds of the global hash rate. With 58 percent of electricity in that country generated from fossil-fuel sources, this meant that the energy-intensive proof-of-work blockchain that underpins the currency was often powered by coal – though proponents of the coin have pointed out that many mining pools used electricity from renewable sources, or energy that would otherwise be wasted.

Last summer, China’s Bitcoin hash rate fell to near zero in the wake of government action. However, data from Cambridge University’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI) reveals that miners are creeping back into the country, or finding ways to evade the crackdown. As of January 2022, China was responsible for 21.1% of Bitcoin mining, making it second only to the US (38% of the hash rate).

With global Bitcoin mining responsible for power consumption of an estimated 83.9 TWh per year – more than Belgium or Finland, and enough electricity to power every kettle in the UK for 19 years – it is conceivable that a chunk of China’s emissions reduction came from Beijing’s move against the crypto market, which was partly driven by a desire to establish the digital yuan.

But what does the rest of China’s vast ICT industry make of the carbon reduction challenge? The signs are they take it very seriously. Mr Ding Yung (Ryan Ding) is Deputy Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Chinese ICT giant Huawei. In his view, the industry itself will begin to drive global progress towards carbon neutrality.

He says:

Every major progress of human civilization is accompanied by a leap in the energy efficiency of carrying information. By energy efficiency, we are referring to the information capacity carried per energy unit. Future digital technologies such as 5g, F5G [fifth-generation fixed network], and AI are driving industry sectors to break through the limitations of the physical world and accelerate the advent of the digital age.

Human civilization is once again at a critical juncture to take energy efficiency to the next level, to sustain the continuous growth of information capacity.

It seems that we have never been in such a pressing situation. On the one hand, industry digitalization will increase traffic demand significantly, which naturally leads to fast-growing total energy consumption. But on the other, the world is facing the huge challenge of climate change that requires the ICT sector to work towards the goal of carbon neutrality.

According to figures presented by Ding, the traffic generated by digital services will reach 612 zettabytes a year by 2030, which would be 13 times 2020’s energy consumption, with ICT carbon emissions 2.3 times larger at current energy efficiency levels. The ICT industry must therefore reduce carbon emissions by at least 45% by 2030, he says, adding:

As traffic continues to grow, the tension between growing energy consumption and the carbon reduction goal will be a world-class conundrum. The key to solving the problem is therefore to go back to energy efficiency.

While we're looking for renewable energy to replace fossil fuel, we should also seek energy efficiency and improvement for our existing infrastructure. […] The efforts on energy conservation and emissions reduction of the ICT infrastructure must prioritize energy efficiency first, so we need to look for ways to make our site networks and operations more energy-efficient in carrying traffic.

Second, we should also aim to reduce the total carbon emissions continuously, to reduce absolute power consumption and increase the share of renewable energy. Finally, a set of indicators should be defined to establish energy efficiency baselines and measure energy efficiency levels.

A green transformation

Mr Wen Ku is Chairman of the China Communication Standards Association (CCSA). He says:

The ICT industry is reducing its energy consumption and enabling other industries to facilitate the reduction of emission and power consumption, and to fuel green transformation.

During the 13th five-year plan, the amount of telecom services and traffic increased explosively, with an average annual increase of over 50%. But the energy consumption of telecom services and traffic per unit decreased, continuously, by over 20% annually [sic].

5G, data centers, and other ICT technologies are driving digital transformation. They are driving the energy conservation and emissions reduction of other industries. The World Economic Forum predicts that, by 2030, ICT technologies will enable other industries to reduce their carbon emissions by 12.1 billion tons, which is 10 times the ICT sector’s own emissions.

The CCSA itself has been implementing a carbon neutrality strategy, he says, researching energy-saving technologies for ICT networks and developing green standards – including a claimed 43 carbon neutrality standards.

He continues:

We must seize the opportunities of global digital transformation, explore and adopt new technologies, strengthen standardization on low-carbon green development, deepen international cooperation, and promote a green transformation of the economy and society.

We need to plan comprehensively and to standardize carbon peak and carbon neutrality work. We need to aim at today as well as at the future, and make a systematic plan. We need to specify the key tasks, timeline, and roadmap. And at the same time, we should standardise the equipment, system, and networks to promote green development.

What's more, the decentralization, pace, and promotion plan should be managed properly. That's how we can encourage the green transformation of the ICT industry.

My take

Bold words that we don’t often associate with China. Few would deny that, while China may be a major contributor to the world’s environmental problems, it is also an essential part of the solution. Its ability to mobilize large numbers of people and push them to work towards shared goals may, ironically, help save the planet one day.

• Ding and Ku were speaking at a Huawei ‘Win Win’ conference last week.

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