The Climate Potential of Broadband: An Urgent Call to OECD Countries

Climate change is a crucial crisis needing bold action. Solutions don't just rely on future tech; current digital communications, like broadband infrastructure, can aid in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe), explain SarahKate Palmer and Joe Rowsell, Director of Regulatory Affairs, TELUS
The Climate Potential of Broadband: An Urgent Call to OECD Countries
The Forum Network is a space for experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society— to discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

Climate change is the defining crisis of our age, one which requires bold and transformative action. The solutions to combat this existential threat are not solely reliant on futuristic, yet-to-be-developed technologies. Instead, they exist within our current technological landscape, particularly in the realm of digital communications. Broadband infrastructure, an often-overlooked tool, serves as a potent ally in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe).

We do not need to imagine a world where optimised internet connections significantly reduce individual carbon footprints without necessitating radical or prejudicial lifestyle alterations, we’re already part way there. International flights are replaced by video calls, intelligent agricultural tools minimise waste while enhancing crop productivity, digital healthcare eliminates the need for travel, and environmentally friendly buildings and transportation systems operate with efficiency. Climate change demands bold actions, and accelerating the digital transformation we see all around us, driven by broadband adoption, is key to tackling this existential threat.

More on the Forum Network: CReDo, The Climate Resilience Demonstrator Project: Collaboration and resilience through connected digital twins by Sarah Hayes, CReDo Strategic Engagement Lead, Connected Places Catapult

Our infrastructure systems were not designed with climate change in mind. To help achieve more resilient services, CReDo uses data across energy, water and communications assets to build a model of an existing infrastructure system and visualise the interdependencies between the networks.

Broadband infrastructure plays a vital role in combating climate change

Broadband adoption can enable a substantial 15-20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These reductions are facilitated not just by direct impacts such as energy-efficient network technologies, but also by indirect effects – broadband enables a range of low-carbon behaviours, including remote work, virtual healthcare, precision agriculture, smart manufacturing, and green buildings.

Yet, despite its transformative potential, broadband's role in climate change mitigation is overlooked in the existing climate policies of all OECD countries as of 2022. Its inclusion is a crucial step forward. To meet climate targets, OECD countries must ensure universal, reliable broadband access. Broadband is not a luxury; it's an essential infrastructure akin to electricity and finance, central to our societies and economies.

Shaping our telecom policy with climate change in mind is not only a responsibility, but an opportunity for profound global impact.

Telecom operators and equipment providers are already demonstrating how to leverage networks to reduce GHGe., enabling reductions across other industries such as agriculture, health, transportation, and energy. However, achieving our climate targets cannot rest on the actions of a few companies; policymakers have a vital role to play. The strategy should be defined by a simple but powerful framing: digital policy is climate policy.

Existing climate policies must embrace the potential of digital technology

Telecom regulators have a responsibility to incorporate climate considerations into their regulatory frameworks, and to do so explicitly. For broadband's climate potential to be fully realised, certain policies are essential. According to the GSMA, regulators should facilitate timely and cost-efficient spectrum assignments that encourage energy-efficient network technologies. This can be achieved through preferential allocation or spectrum pricing mechanisms for services and operators that demonstrate lower carbon emissions or improved energy efficiency.

Encouraging private sector investment in broadband infrastructure is paramount to achieving these goals, but broadband subsidies are necessary to accelerate the deployment of high-quality, low-carbon broadband infrastructure in rural and remote areas. All residents must have access to broadband infrastructure to facilitate the widespread adoption of digital solutions and reduce energy consumption. Policy objectives must consider the link between the telecom industry and climate change. For example, wholesale frameworks that focus on price competition could deter rural investment and technology adoption, crucial for reducing GHGe.

Regulators should infuse climate considerations into policy discussions, steering the telecom industry towards sustainability and supporting operators investing in broadband to address climate change. Integrating climate expertise into regulatory organisations is crucial, with dedicated climate advisors ensuring that decisions are informed by the latest in climate science. Shaping our telecom policy with climate change in mind is not only a responsibility, but an opportunity for profound global impact.

OECD countries are in a unique position to lead this digital climate transformation

With key insights drawn from local communities and stakeholders, digital policies can be more effectively tailored to address climate change at the grassroots level. These groups hold invaluable knowledge about their local economies, environments, and sustainability practices. They provide unique insights, a perspective that is increasingly being endorsed by the OECD. The OECD report, "Building Better Societies Through Digital Policy," emphasises this important aspect, stating that the local knowledge and nuances of community-led approaches can significantly enhance the effectiveness of digital policy.

By realising that digital policy is climate policy, we can not only reduce GHGe but also enable a sustainable digital future. 

In the grand scheme of global climate action, OECD countries are in a unique position to lead this digital climate transformation. With OECD member countries accounting for nearly 50% of the world's broadband subscriptions, they have a significant impact on the global digital landscape. Beyond individual efforts, these countries can play a pivotal role in fostering global cooperation on digital climate policy. The Inclusive Forum on Carbon Mitigation Approaches and the Global Forum on Environment, both facilitated by the OECD, offer platforms for such collaboration. Here, regulators can share best practices, discuss policy harmonisation, and foster a unified, global response to the dual challenges of digital transformation and climate change. By taking the lead, OECD countries have the potential to shape not only their digital futures but also the global response to climate change.

As we envision a future where our planet flourishes, we must remember that our digital transformation is a key component of the solution that will not materialise if policymakers neglect the technologies they already have in hand. OECD countries have the power to ignite this change by recognising the climate potential of broadband and reforming digital policies accordingly. By realising that digital policy is climate policy, we can not only reduce GHGe but also enable a sustainable digital future. This is more than a call to action – it's an invitation to redefine our future.


Learn more about OECD's work on Driving low-carbon innovations for climate neutrality

The transition to climate neutrality requires cost reductions in existing clean technologies to enable rapid deployment on a large scale, as well as the development of emerging technologies such as green hydrogen. This policy paper argues that science, technology, innovation, and industrial (STI&I) policies focusing on developing and deploying low-carbon technologies are crucial to achieving carbon neutrality. 

Please sign in

If you are a registered user on The OECD Forum Network, please sign in