What is the actual environmental footprint of digital technology worldwide?
The main impacts of digital technology on the environment are related to the extraction of raw materials (metals, petroleum, etc.) and their transformation into electronic components. To build our equipment, we are depleting natural resources that are not renewable. In addition, digital technology has an effect on global warming and therefore on the climate through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Its global footprint amounts to the equivalent of 4% of GHG emissions and 0.2% of humanity’s water consumption. In France, digital technology accounts for 3.3% of GHG emissions and 2.2% of the country’s fresh water consumption.
And the trend is alarming. Digital technology accounted for 2% of humanity’s GHG footprint in 2010, reached about 4% in 2020 and we project that it will reach 6% by 2025. While the scientific community estimates that we need to reduce our environmental impacts by a factor of four to be on a sustainable path, digital technology has tripled its environmental impacts in just fifteen years. Fortunately, there has not been such a rapid increase in other sectors, such as transport and housing…
In addition to the environmental impacts, you say that digital technology is a dwindling resource. What does this mean?
Digital technology is a non-renewable critical resource that is inevitably dwindling. It is a critical resource because we are all both individually and collectively dependent on digital technology. We need digital technology for essential activities, such as getting treatment by having MRI scans, or modeling the climate using computers. But this resource is not renewable as it is based on the increasingly difficult extraction of limited resources, such as critical metals and rare earths. So, we need to consider digital technology as a limited resource that is dwindling at a very rapid rate. There are probably one or two digital generations ahead of us, as we know it today. This depletion of digital resources should be a warning to us even more than its impacts on the environment.
Paradoxically, it is a subject that is still rarely discussed in the public debate. But we are becoming aware of it and this has been gathering pace since last summer. We released a GreenIT report in June 2020, the Citizens’ Convention has taken up the issue, and a recent Senate report was along the same lines, not to mention the recently released “Digital and Environment” roadmap. But, strangely, digital technology is not included in the draft law on Climate and Resilience where it should, however, have its rightful place.
And what about the arrival of 5G in this context?
The debates about the deployment of 5G crystallize the increasing public awareness. This increased awareness is very encouraging. For the first time, the issue of the environmental impact of digital technology has been raised by civil society, whereas the discussion had not been launched for 3G and 4G. As with all technologies, 5G has advantages and drawbacks. For example, it provides ultra-fast broadband in hard-to-wire areas, but it will also cause a premature renewal of smartphones, which is not reasonable. 5G is a tool whose effects will depend on how it is used by economic players. Yet the direction taken by operators is not compatible with sustainable development.
You have coined the term low-tech. What is it?
Digital technology is a finite resource which we need to save so that we can pass it on to future generations and limit the environmental impacts in the short term. As individuals, this involves adopting a reasoned and reasonable use of digital technology in our daily lives and choices. Collectively, it means asking how we can save this resource to ensure that society will not be vulnerable if digital technology ever ran short in the future.
To achieve this, I think we need to combine low-tech and high-tech. Today, our reflex is to consider digital technology as the solution to all our problems. Something really innovative would be to only use digital technology when it has real added value. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, rainfall forecasts provided by a mobile application are written in chalk on blackboards in schools. The children subsequently pass the information on to their parent farmers when they go home from school. Compared with “everyone has their smartphone”, this blend between low-tech and high-tech significantly reduces the environmental impacts of the system.
Low-tech also involves eco-design. The user terminals of tomorrow (mobile phones, computers) will need to be more robust and durable and applications simpler. For example, the M-Pedigree application can check whether or not medicines are counterfeit simply by using text messages.
What are the main drivers at our disposal to reduce our digital footprint?
The main issue involves reducing the equipment rate (the number of devices) rather than the uses of digital technology. In practical terms, we need to reduce the renewal of equipment, increase the statutory guarantee period for devices (to five years instead of two today) and make deposits for electronic devices mandatory in order to massify their reconditioning and therefore their re-use. Finally, we need to regulate the reconditioning activity more strictly in order to reassure consumers.
Making the society of tomorrow more low-tech involves all levels: responsible and reasoned consumers, public authorities that help citizens take action and equipment manufacturers, as well as the designers of our interactive contents and services, that must promote this vision of a simple, robust and durable digital technology.
Interview by Flora Trouilloud (editorial team)