ATHENS, Greece, 30 October 2006
Greening IT? Not really. Well at least, not only. That is the taste in the mouth one walks away with after attending one of today’s workshops at the first-ever Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens. Although entitled “Greening IT”, the workshop discussed how to bring people into environmental decision-making processes with the help of the internet, rather than how to make the technology more sustainable in itself. Confused?
I’m wondering if this is the reason why this morning at breakfast, a woman from Uganda told me “I think it’s too early for Africa to get involved in Greening IT”? Is that why there was almost nobody from Africa sitting in this workshop? Did people not see the point of connecting sustainable development with the internet’s development? Hard to tell.
The workshop was organised by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), in collaboration with the Bulgarian environmental network Bluelink and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
Hop on the train, people!
It started with some thoughts by Michael Stanley-Jones about UNECE’s Aarhus Convention. “The convention that was held in June 1998 in Denmark, is based on three pillars,” he instructed before listing “access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.”
Yes but again, how does that relate to the web? If Stanley-Jones did not get his hands dirty here, he did point out that the Aarhus convention is a one-of-its-kind framework for making sure that citizens get a stronger say in governance processes around the environment. “It’s less a state-to-state convention and much more a treaty that bounds states with civil society,” he explained.
The internet would be one tool, and a powerful one at that, which would help us get down with policy, expanded he. If that’s a step in the right direction to “bridge the gap separating the environmental sustainability community from those working on the information society” does that make the case for putting environment on the radar of internet governance? A tough sell here in Athens, to say the least.
Environment and internet, two cups of tea?
David Souter, an ICT for development researcher at the University of Strathclyde (UK), fired his homemade analysis at the panel to try his luck in answering the question why the sell might be so hard. “There is a conflict between the ICT world’s focus on innovation and the Aarhus principles and environmental community’s obsession with preservation and control of technology”.
But IISD’s Heather Creech did not agree. “There are real intersections, it is not true anymore that these communities can still ignore each other,” she insisted. “To say that the sustainable development community is driven by a focus on ‘doing-no-harm’ is outdated,” she said, although explicitly recognising that the two communities tend to operate in separate silos.
“At the International Institute for Sustainable Development, we work on trade liberalisation that protects and restores the environment. We’re therefore focusing on ‘restoring economies’. We ask the question of how we can get out of a carbon-constrained economy,” she said. Her group monitors new technologies and the internet to pursue that ambitious goal.
Milena Bokova of Bluelink, an environmental organisation working extensively with ICTs shifted the discussion back to internet governance, saying that the IGF is an opportunity to integrate sustainable development in all its social and health aspects.
“In another workshop here, someone from the Pacific Islands expressed that the single main challenge with which his region is increasingly faced with is global warming,” she mentioned. Quite striking indeed that the very first workshop at the IGF would list this major environmental phenomenon as the greatest obstacle to making the internet accessible.
Bokova was, interestingly enough, the only panellist addressing “greening IT” head on. “Internet is a big industry and therefore has an impact on human health,” she said, among other things, in reference to the potentially damageable consequences caused by frequent and sustained exposition to wireless frequency. “Hardware needs to be developed with an eye on health and social principles of sustainability,” she added.
Julian Casasbuenas, the director of APC-member in Colombia,
Colnodo, talked about a
practical application of the internet for a social and environmental
purpose. He explained SISBIM in general terms. This municipal information system includes a particular section that is in line with the discussions of the workshop, called
Corpoguavio. It is a monitoring project, notably innovative in the way it
gives thousands of Colombians a chance to track their municipality’s environmental record over a longer period of time. This way, it is believed, citizens can keep their elected representatives accountable once voted into office. But for that, you need expertise and technique. Colnodo
makes use of a fine piece of free and open source software called MAPAS
and which it uses to get an overview of a regions’ different
At the end the workshop, Mihaly Bako from the Romanian non governmental organisation StrawberryNet was caught as saying that environmental groups in his country needed to use ICTs in order to have a say, advocate and campaign for environmental sustainability. “When other channels of participation are blocked, ICTs can work wonders,” he argued, illustrating this with a case opposing local NGOs to a gold mining corporation.
The use of concrete examples where ICTs and the internet are used to advance environmental causes are probably the most flashy and self-explanatory ways to blend in internet governance with sustainable development.
It is certainly also possible to connect parts of the Aarhus convention with a still-awaited-for model of internet governance. Watching and acting on the internet governance discussions through a green lens is a starting point, but those wanting to bring that point home will need to go pedagogical about this.
Photo: Mihaly Bako
Panel of the ‘Greening IT’ workshop at the IGFin Athens