At the turn of the century, Latin America’s population counted a little over half a billion people. By 2050 that number will have increased another 50%, while global population growth is expected to reach 9 billion over the same period. How do we meet the needs of a growing population in a sustainable way, while maintaining the economic development that has led to improving living standards across the region?

The answer to that question is not a simple one.

It goes without saying that the power of technology will be at the vanguard of efforts to tackle this challenge. And information and communications technology (ICTs) is no exception. ICT-enabled solutions could remove 9.1Gt of CO2 from industrial production. From teleconferencing, which reduces the need for cars on the road and associated pollution, to innovation in mobile and Wi-Fi technology which use power more efficiently, the ICT industry is set to play a critical role towards a net positive world.

There’s always room to go further, faster. If our goal is to reduce the environmental footprint of our businesses and those in our supply chain, while continuing to support economic development, the answer has to be the virtualisation of storage and services. Or, in layman’s terms, the cloud.

Put simply, using less computer hardware reduces the need for energy, and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. A Harvard Business School study estimates that across 11 representative economies, 4.5 Mt of CO2e could be saved annually from virtualising services. Globally, the figure is even higher. Improving operational efficiency, higher utilisation rates and advanced data centre infrastructure to reduce power loss through improved cooling are but some of the ways the cloud realises its potential.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned working with businesses in Latin America, it’s that reducing environmental impact through the cloud isn’t just a ‘nice to do’, it’s business critical. Cloud enabled data centres in Colombia give access to superfast fibre broadband for thousands of companies, large and small. They provide greater flexibility, allowing businesses to scale up IT infrastructure of their operations incrementally, and securely. And crucially, they reduce the need for up-front capital investments, and operating costs from high energy needs. In short, reducing the resource needs of ICT saves money and helps businesses to grow. Follow the logic and it’s clear to see that reduced resource use in energy and water stressed regions (of which there are many in the region) mitigates the need for associated land, protecting natural habitats and communities.

With demand for data centre services expected to grow by more than 80% in Latin America, cloud-based infrastructure will be crucial to realising economic development in a sustainable way. And with a new generation of cloud service integration through innovations like the cloud of clouds, burgeoning companies in Latin American will be able to connect easily, and sustainably with their offices and suppliers around the world

But back to the data. The proliferation of cloud-based services in countries like Colombia doesn’t just have a business benefit. The Colombian Government’s Vive Digital initiative helps facilitate the safe storage and digitization of medical records through cloud-based technology, improving the provision of healthcare to all social groups. Virtualising IT infrastructure through cloud-based services has the potential to accelerate the speed at which renewable technologies come online.

But the road to virtualisation won’t be without its challenges. Chief among these will be ensuring reliability and security as offline control systems are integrated online. Without security, there is no opportunity for growth. And although the environmental footprint of cloud services is dramatically smaller than its hard-wire cousin, we must ensure cloud-based infrastructure is powered, as far as possible, by low-carbon and renewable energy.

But the end goal is clear, and within site. We’re talking about gigatonnes of CO2, trillions of dollars in savings for companies and customers and, crucially, an opportunity for a new generation of businesses to access new customers, markets and partnerships in a cost effective and sustainable way.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America 2015 takes place in Riviera Maya, Mexico, from 6-8 May.

Author: Bas Burger, President, BT in the Americas

Image: A worker monitors the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory (ATTO) in Sao Sebastiao do Uatuma in the middle of the Amazon forest in Amazonas state January 9, 2015. REUTERS/Bruno Kell