Digital technologies bring new opportunities to reduce our environmental footprint. But it turns out that they also pollute. Is the digital transition a new vicious circle or a wealth of solutions for the ecological transition?

The digital transition is in full swing: five billion people own a cell phone today. As there is no planet B, undoubtedly there will be no future B, no foreseeable future without new information and communication technologies. Is this a help or a hindrance for this other transition which the international community cannot fail at, the ecological transition? Whereas many initiatives are proving that digital technologies are facilitating virtuous solutions for the environment, the pollution produced by these same technologies has aroused significant criticism.

 

A digital step toward a more ecological world

Monitor buildings’ energy consumption, curb deforestation and encourage responsible logging practices: a great many digital innovations have a positive effect on the climate. According to Laur Fisher, an MIT researcher and engineer, this is true primarily because digital technologies allow people to work together to improve proposals and to find collective solutions to the global problem. It is in this spirit that she has launched Climate CoLab, a collective intelligence project enabling 50,000 workers to work toward the elaboration and selection of solutions against climate change.

This same idea has motivated all who are focused on the finding the potential of digital data to succeed the ecological transition. More data has been generated on the planet in two years than since the beginning of digital history: it can be put to use for the general interest and thus the ecological transition. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is encouraging it: thanks to the management and analysis of a huge quantity of data on climate change, early warning systems can be set up to protect populated areas. Data journalists agree that using digital data and making it available to others are ways to stimulate the greatest awareness about the stakes of climate change, an essential collective wake-up call pleading for the success of the fight against climate change.

Digital technologies can thus become one of the motors for the ecological transition. Frédéric Charles, director of Stratégie & Innovation (SUEZ Smart Solutions) is convinced, but he sounds the alarm: “digital technologies will also have to respond to the electronic waste and energy consumption problems they create”.

 

The digital transition, the reverse side of the solution

The digital transition is an environmental paradox: it opens the door to ecological progress while putting added pressure on the environment. If Internet were a country, its energy consumption would rank sixth in the world. Data centers use energy to store the data generated every second by emails, online video viewing and geolocations, but above all to cool machines: 50% of the energy consumed by these centers is used to lower server temperatures. But the issue of energy consumption linked to digital technology is also linked to our daily habits, says Anne-Cécile Orgerie, a CNRS researcher: “Our [telephone] batteries go flat in less than a day, [whereas] it would be enough to switch on the low-energy mode to gain up to several days of autonomy.”

But digital appliances consume energy even when we’re not using them: their manufacture is wearing out the planet. The metals essential for their production are rare and require the mining of extraordinary amounts of earth or rocks: to obtain 1 kilo of lutetium, 1200 tons of rock must be processed. Moreover, the mining industry uses and discharges products which are extremely noxious for the environment as well as miners. This is rare metal extraction which mainly occurs in Africa and China, while countries like France decided to stop their production in the 1990s, judging their environmental cost to be too high.

And at the end of the chain, very little digital waste is collected, reused and recycled: in Europe, recycling concerns about 20% of electronic components. Yet the global value of metals contained in discarded units is about 55 billion dollars. And when they’re collected, they often wind up in developing countries’ landfills where they are sorted by informal waste collectors.

It’s impossible to know today whether digital innovations are a threat or part of the global solution to a successful ecological and energy transition. As CNRS researcher Françoise Berthoud writes, “digital technologies should be designed to help with the ecological transition while remaining aware of the challenges which must be met in the world of digital technologies themselves”. But it is perhaps, as journalist Guillaume Pitron emphasizes, a systemic change which is necessary: “if we don’t move toward minimal consumption, we’ll forever continue shifting the problem elsewhere”.

 

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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