Half the world lacks access to the internet. Addressing the digital divide, which is crucial for driving prosperity and equality, must be done sustainably
Economies and societies have shown tremendous resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Information and communication technologies have played a pivotal role, allowing billions of people to work, learn and stay connected with loved ones near and far.
Yet even if the pandemic has accelerated the global digital transformation, nearly half the world’s population still lacks internet access. Deep digital divides remain between and within countries.
Italy’s G20 agenda – focused on ‘People, Planet, Prosperity’ – echoes the Connect 2030 Agenda of the International Telecommunication Union, which aims to harness digital technologies for the benefit of all. Key goals include improving education, strengthening infrastructure and reducing global inequalities.
These align closely with the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations, seeking comprehensive solutions for the world’s greatest challenges by 2030. Chief among the threats we face is unprecedented and accelerating climate change, reiterated more urgently than ever by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in August.
We must, therefore, as leaders of countries and key institutions, redouble our efforts. We need to promote fair and equitable investment approaches, extend the benefits of ICT to all, make our increasingly digital world cleaner than the one we inhabit today, and boost prosperity without leaving anyone behind.
Sustainable digital transformation
Accelerated digital uptake must simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the crucial energy sector. The ICT industry must reduce its own emissions by 45% over the current decade. This hinges on adopting stringent digital technical standards – a core function of International Telecommunication Union as the UN specialised agency for ICTs.
For instance, the ITU standard L.1470, delivered last year by our ITU-T Study Group 5 on environment, climate change and the circular economy, advises operators of mobile networks, fixed networks and data centres on setting science-based targets to reduce emissions. Other standards aim to define net zero for the ICT sector and provide an environmental impact assessment methodology for different network architectures.
Along with cutting emissions, we must bring electronic waste from our industry under control, partly through better end-of-life management for ICT equipment. ITU’s commitment to reducing e-waste is also reflected in the Connect 2030 Agenda, where member states pledged to increase the global e-waste recycling rate to 30%.
Last year, the number of countries with national e-waste policies, legislation or regulations reached 78. This is a positive trend, but falls short of the 50% target set by ITU. We must do better, faster.
Standards with industry-wide buy-in can protect the environment and simultaneously drive competitiveness — not just for individual businesses, but across entire economies — by fostering efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and innovation.
Connectivity as a foundation
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need to connect everyone. Connectivity gaps, however, are widening between the rich and poor, urban and rural, young and elderly, as well as along gender lines and for persons with disabilities. To set digital development on a more inclusive trajectory, governments and industry must work together to invest – both in accessible digital infrastructure and in initiatives to ensure affordability and digital literacy.
Like every crisis, the pandemic offers valuable lessons to us as leaders and citizens. Communities everywhere have continued their lives and work despite formidable difficulties. But 3.7 billion people – the majority of them women, and most in developing countries – still lack connectivity. Guaranteeing their inclusion is among the greatest challenges before us.
A call to G20 leaders
Last year’s Riyadh International Standards Summit concluded with the call for each country to recognise, support and adopt international standards to accelerate digital transformation in all economic sectors. This key call to action for the G20 aimed to tackle global crises, including COVID-19, and contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
As the world grows increasingly more reliant on ICTs, we will need closer collaboration, cooperation and coordination at the national, regional and international levels. I urge G20 leaders to promote sustainable socio-economic models and apply key policy lessons from the pandemic to ongoing challenges such as climate change.
As 2022 approaches, the international community must show courage and ambition. We need to take care of people and of our planet, while ensuring a strong, inclusive and sustainable economic recovery.