The health crisis of 2020 has accelerated the growth of two global trends: the role of digital tech across all industries, and the need for greater environmental protection. What’s more, the year’s events have also highlighted the close links between these two trends. The digital transformation is destined to provide solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time, new technology is increasing the threat of climate change, either directly or indirectly. Faced with such a crucial issue, what are the options for limiting the environmental impact of digital tech? And who needs to be taking action? The answers to these questions have yet to become clear.
“Save Trees. Please do not print this email unless necessary.” It’s still a common message at the end of so many daily emails, one that underlines a common perception about the digital world: by going paperless, we can limit the amount of our waste, and paper in particular. And yet, although digital tech is one of the biggest drivers of global economic growth, environmental studies continually point to its role as a source of pollution.
The many different impacts of digital tech
“With the growing number of studies quantifying the environmental impact of digital technology, we are beginning to realise its impact on the environment,” says Frédéric Bordage, the founder of a group of experts, GreenIT.fr, in 2004. In a report published in October 2019 (‘The environmental footprint of digital technology worldwide’), he estimated that the sector was responsible for 2% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in 2010, would account for 4% in 2020, and would hit 5.5% in 2025. There are currently 34 billion smartphones, computers, games consoles and TV sets on the planet. And their growth could be exponential. Frédéric Bordage says the public debate, which focuses on GHGs, is biased: “80% of digital tech’s impacts are linked to the manufacturing of the devices we use (smartphones, TVs, smart watches, etc.), and particularly the extraction of raw materials (metals), and their transformation into electronic components. The remaining 20% comes from the electricity used by the sector in general.” Which means that, on top of the GHGs, we need to add the impact of extracting and refining metals, plus issues about water, and the pollution associated with extracting metals and handling waste.
Other impacts are even harder to quantify. Françoise Berthoud, a research engineer with France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), underlines the need to include indirect effects, i.e. the impact on the environment of products and services that are digitally-driven (given the increase in international traffic created by easy access to online offerings, for example). The researcher highlights the important role of the rebound effect of the digital transformation. “Every technology – whether in the form of equipment, applications, or anything else – that produces an efficiency gain in terms of the energy used, the time taken to perform a task, or the space required either physically or in someone’s memory, creates a desire for even more of the same thing, or for something different. It’s inherent in our economic model, which is based on continuous growth. It means that efficiency savings will always be partially, or even wholly, offset. And in the end, these efficiency improvements lead to a smaller reduction in GHGs, and often an increase. It’s what we call the rebound effect.”
In the frontline: the key players
Faced with this issue, nation states and organisations are starting to take action, and notably the European Union. By introducing three directives – ROHS (Restriction of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment) in 2002, Batteries in 2006 and Ecodesign in 2009 – the EU has tried to provide a framework for the sector. In France, the National Assembly regularly tries to make the industry’s leading players live up to their responsibilities, and a law aiming to reduce the digital sector’s environmental footprint is currently being examined.
However, the challenge is a colossal one, and inevitably starts with the hugely powerful GAFAM quintet of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. All position themselves as defenders of the environment and announce both objectives – and sometimes results – that are very impressive. Among the most recent ones are the use of solely renewable energy sources for powering Apple’s data centres — “which are not always environmentally efficient,” argues Frédéric Bordage – and Amazon’s creation of a $10 billion fund for tackling climate change. For its part, Microsoft says it has been carbon neutral since 2012 and aims to be carbon negative by 2030.
But the experts are generally dubious about these announcements. The digital giants are seen to be carrying out a damage limitation exercise by focusing on their direct activities, such as their data centres, while avoiding the subject of their supply chains, from sub-contractors to consumers. “The major digital players share a narrative that appears to show them acting in support of the environment,” according to Frédéric Bordage. “But it’s all too superficial, or even schizophrenic, because they still keep using addictive design features, which lead to an over-consumption of their services.”
The need for ‘digital in moderation’
This is the key point: pollution will continue to increase in line with the current growth of digital devices, as 83% of their GHGs are produced during the manufacturing stage, compared to only 17% during use. “Demand is being created by supply, which is itself being driven by the need for growth,” says Françoise Berthoud. So, what’s the answer? “Keep the devices for longer, create digital services that have less of an impact on the environment, deal properly with the waste at the end of the lifecycle… but there is no easy, radical answer. And above all, we need to bear in mind that the problem requires a systemic solution, which goes far beyond the issue of digital tech.”
To change consumers’ behaviour means extending the lifetime of products. Aware of the situation, environmental groups are particularly active on the subject. In the United States, Israel and France, Apple has been accused of creating built-in obsolescence, following revelations about the slowing down of iPhone 6, 6S, SE and 7 after an operating system update. In France, where built-in obsolescence has been an offence since 2015, the authority for competition, consumer protection and fighting fraud (DGCCRF) imposed a €25 million fine on Apple on February 7, 2020. A month later, in the United States, Apple apologised and agreed to pay $500 million to American iPhone owners who had accused the company of slowing down their devices1.
But there is one more aspect that needs to be included. Apart from its environmental impacts, digital tech is a critical, non-renewable resource that is soon exhausted. Frédéric Bordage underscores the non-renewable nature of the raw materials needed to provide not only electronic devices, but also electric vehicles and renewable energy. “When we came up with the phrase ‘digital in moderation’, the aim was to make people aware of the need to manage this resource better, so that these devices can become tools for resilience, and the digital space does more to serve humanity,” he recalls. “The good news is that since 80% of the impacts are to do with people, we can take action today, by using our purchasing power.” And thereby encourage the leading corporate players to keep moving in the right direction. After all, in the absence of a magic solution, it’s only by taking practical steps forward that we can respond to the huge challenge we face.