Vice President John Mahama with symposium participants.

Consideration of the environment is often an afterthought in development discussions. With so many competing issues, including the Millenium Development Goals, HIV/AIDs and gender mainstreaming, Africa has found it difficult to focus on the implementation of initiatives that will help curb environmental damage.

However, the tide may be turning. The 6th Annual International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) symposium on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), the Environment and Climate Change held in Accra early last month, highlighted the negative impact of technology on the environment and how that same technology can be used to reverse the trend.

The theme of the ITU ICT symposium, “Moving the Climate Change Agenda Forward through Green ICTs” gathered world-renowned experts in the field.

In the highly digitised world of the 21st century, ICT is a necessity. Paperless communication, teleconferencing and distance learning are all innovations that the world now considers standard. But the world’s dependence on machines has its consequences.

According to a report by the ITU, ICTs contribute to 80% of the world’s electricity consumption. This is understandable when one considers how many ICT devices are charged on a daily basis, including the nearly five billion mobile phones being used globally.

With the power supply in dire straits in several countries including Ghana, the ICT explosion is putting increased pressure on national grids. This may prompt countries to pursue energy generation options that are quick as opposed to those that safeguard the environment.

It is also estimated that the use of ICT is contributing 3% of global gas emissions. The chain result of this is particularly devastating in Africa, where climate change directly affects agriculture, the continent’s main employer.

More indirectly, climate change affects industries like mining, aviation and telecoms. The effects cascade even further when one considers that changes in weather influence a business’ fixed assets, energy efficiency, distribution chains, and insurance concerns. The government and private sector must become more involved.

Keep your own trash

The negative impact of ICT in Ghana is highlighted by its fight against edumping.

At the ITU conference, the Ghanaian Minister of Environment, Science and Technology, Honourable Sherry Ayittey, announced that regulation to control the importation of used and redundant electronic devices was being finalised. The legislation, being prepared in collaboration with the Ministry of Communication and the Attorney General Office, will follow the standards of the Basel Convention on trade.

The extent to which unusable mobile phones, televisions and computers are crowding Ghana’s ports is a cause for concern. The BBC recently broadcast a documentary on the devastating effects of e-waste in Ghana and Nigeria.

According to a recent report from the Ghana Shippers Authority, Ghana imported 31,400 metric tonnes of used electric appliances last year, a growth of 75%.

Due to its colonial ties, the UK is the main source of these goods, accounting for nearly half of all such imports. The other 50% comes from other parts of Europe, Asia and North America. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that developed nations are switching from analogue to digital TV sets causing an increase in discarded electronic material.

In essence, the import of second-hand electronics is not illegal. In fact, in developed countries the export of these products is part of the national recycling programme. But electronic appliances must be certified as being in working condition before they exit the exporting country.

This is becoming less and less the case. Recycling of electronics is cost prohibitive and many fraudulent recycling firms in developed countries receive payment to recycle a product but export such items instead, pocketing the cash difference.

Ghana’s ports are now flooded with obsolete devices, which end up being broken up and burned so that metals such as gold and bauxite, found in the circuit boards of laptops and cell phones, can be extracted. Such burning pollutes rivers and the air, and areas severely affected by such practices have reported a rise in pulmonary disease.

The Minister of Communication, His Excellency Mr Haruna Iddrisu, was among those at the ITU event who spoke against using African countries as dumping grounds for redundant electronics.

Ghana’s Vice President, John Mahama, added: “E-waste is a menace that is threatening the gradual development of the ICT industry in the developing world. Particularly, it is necessary that when ICT equipment has reached its end-life, (it) be carefully managed and disposed of to avoid contamination of the environment including water resources.”

Hey Private Sector, Help Please

E-dumping is a negative outcome of the use of ICT. However, ICTs can be used to mitigate environmental degradation, for example, in determining underground water levels and patterns of rainfall, which could benefit local farmers.

Information technologies can also be leveraged to help synchronise airline schedules to reduce global travel, so reducing fuel consumption and pollution.

ICT companies represented at the ITU symposium included Microsoft, Ericson, MTN, GLO, Vodafone, Tigo, Expresso, Airtel, Huawei and LG. These ICT multinationals in Ghana have invested considerably in the reduction of greenhouse emissions.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), developing countries in 2010 invested US$72 billion in renewable solar and wind energy, with countries in the Middle East and Africa up by 104% to US$5 billion.

Europe and Asia are investing heavily in wind farms and small scale solar panels, which are responsible for a 32% increase in green energy from 2009, according to the report by the UNEP.

ICT companies at the ITU conference indicated that they intended to influence their suppliers to pursue environmental programmes and produce environmentally-friendly products. The ICT heavyweights also stressed that they are highly involved in using solar energy to provide mobile phone access in areas without electricity using solar phone chargers.

Mr Kyle Whitehill, CEO of Vodafone Ghana, said that his company is pursuing e-waste management and CO2 reduction strategies, as well as contributing to the training of key institutions such as the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA).

For example, the company has piloted an early warning detection system in Begoro in the Eastern Region to ameliorate natural disaster detection.

The company has also partnered with three non-governmental organisations in green mobile community projects where information about seedlings planted to curb vegetation depletion are sent via text messaging.

Mr Whitehill added that Vodafone had reduced global travel by 50%, by promoting webcasting and voice and audio conferencing. The company also used recycled ICT materials to build a 100-seat internet cafe at Ordogonor Senior High School in Accra.

Despite these corporate innovations to promote a sustainable environment, recycling in Ghana has been overlooked by private sector operators, especially the recycling of e-waste. Currently operational in Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt, e-waste recycling plants are the future.

For instance, door-to-door collection of e-waste according to the Basel Convention, can generate US$4 a day for a single collector but factories can make as much as US$67 a day.

Recovery rate of precious metals in electronics is 90%, which is revenue that can be generated in addition to the fees paid for proper disposal of the ICT.

Developing governments must be in a position to provide practical guidance on how the private sector and the other national actors can help to mitigate environmental degradation. With the exploitation of non-renewable resources at very high levels in Ghana, it is comforting to know that the environment has not been forgotten.