Communications traffic is growing at an exponential rate as more consumers use smartphones, tablets and PCs to connect to the Internet. A growing number of other devices and machines are also connected, including TVs, refrigerators, cars and thermostats – the so-called Internet of Things. Moreover, legions of new users are joining networks in emerging economies, with information and communications technology (ICT) increasingly being used in a range of industries to create efficiencies.

The scale of this growth has created a problem for communication networks as they demand an ever-increasing amount of energy to support rapidly rising traffic. The root of the problem is that the increase in traffic is much higher than the rate at which networks are becoming more energy efficient. This is because the design of today’s networks is calibrated to optimize capacity and speed, but not energy efficiency. As a result, they are hugely energy inefficient. This creates a growing network energy gap, which is not sustainable.

The effect of this inefficiency on the environment is significant. If the Internet was a country, it would be the fifth biggest energy consumer in the world, ahead of Russia and just a little less than Japan. ICT’s carbon emissions account for 2% of carbon emissions globally, putting its carbon footprint on a par with the global aviation industry, or the equivalent of 50 million cars.

Solving the growing network energy gap, therefore, requires inventing new technologies, algorithms and architectures, or finding smarter ways of using existing technologies to reduce energy consumption in communication networks.

But no single entity, no company, however large, can tackle the challenge of hugely increasing energy efficiency in communication networks on its own. The problem is simply too complex and involves too many players. What is needed is a new innovation model, one that incorporates all stakeholders within the ICT landscape.

Increasing energy efficiency means lowering the cost of traffic per user. This in turn reduces operational expenditure and, of course, the less power used means a lower carbon footprint. Using less power more efficiently also means that renewable energy sources begin to become viable. Environmental ambitions alone are not sufficient to achieve all this; it also requires an economic and technical approach.

For more information, read the second edition of Green Light, a monthly newsletter from the Global Agenda Council on Governance for Sustainability.

Image: A girl takes photos during the summer solstice celebration in Kumanovo, Macedonia, June 21, 2013. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski