Inside the Digital Society: Greening the digital society

It’s the end of this strange COVID-19 Northern summer / Southern winter. Time for this blog for APC to resume its weekly exploration ‘Inside the Digital Society’.

The last two months, like those before them, have been dominated by the COVID-19 crisis. What is that doing to our economies, societies and cultures?  Is it advancing digitalisation – or is it raising as many doubts as expectations? That’s one theme that's going to be running through this blog during the rest of 2020, as the crisis evolves.

But we’re also in the run-up to the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) which this year, thanks to COVID-19, will be virtual. The future of internet governance is another theme that I’ll be covering this season. What’s the purpose of the IGF?  Does it need to change? More importantly, does our concept of internet governance need to change for a post-COVID-19 digital society?

The internet and the environment

First, though, I’ll take up one of the themes of this year’s Forum. For the first time this year, the IGF has chosen environment as a main theme. And, since I’ve long argued for such a focus, and for internet insiders to listen to environmental experts rather than assuming that technology will solve their problems, I thought I’d head back into the blogosphere with that.

We focused on environment in the UK IGF as well last week, so here is some of what I had to say. This week, setting the scene in three parts, concerned with context, the scale of problems, and ways of assessing impacts. Next week, looking at what might be done.

The context

When thinking about the internet and the environment, I’d say, we should begin with environmental issues, not (as many digital enthusiasts do) with what we think might be their digital solutions. At its heart are three evolving crises.

  • There’s climate change. Without rapid reductions in energy demand, we’ll experience a rise in global temperatures that will have massive impacts on ecosystems and human activity.

  • There’s pollution: the generation and inadequate disposal of growing volumes of redundant materials of all kinds.

  • And there’s loss of biodiversity and resource depletion: using up the stock of planetary resources – animal, vegetable and mineral.

The United Nations addresses these within the concept of sustainable development but that concept’s not, as many think, just about environment. It’s concerned with overall development in a world of inequality and widespread poverty. And it targets three overarching areas – not just environmental sustainability but also increased prosperity and better social welfare.

Achieving positive change across all three is very challenging. So where does digital technology fit in, to the environmental part at least?

Opportunities and risks (as ever)

Potential gains to the environment from digitalisation are significant, but uncertain. So are the risks, though some of those are easier to quantify. A lot will happen that we cannot easily anticipate.  

Digital enthusiasts emphasise the ways in which new technologies might improve sustainability – for example by improving energy efficiency or enabling smart systems, smart cities, and so on. Pessimists stress the environmental costs of digitalisation, such as increased energy consumption and electronic waste.

Blind allies versus light at the end of tunnels

There are two blind allies that we should avoid here.  

One is the temptation to go binary - to emphasise the positives or stress the negatives, without thinking about how they intersect.  

The other is to trade off positives and negatives against each other.  But that’s not responsible governance from an environmental point of view.  The costs and benefits don’t arise from the same factors, and we shouldn’t trade them off.  Both need to be addressed, so the goal of digital environmentalism should be:

  • to maximise potential benefits and

  • to minimise – or mitigate – potential costs.

And that requires us both:

  • to consider the specific impacts of digitalisation in particular areas (such as data centres or cryptocurrencies); and 

  • to take a holistic view of the impact which the digital society will have overall, as societies, economies and cultures change.

If we’re to see light at the end of our environmental tunnels, we can’t afford to leave outcomes to chance, or to the market, or just wait to see what happens first and try to fix it later like we’re doing with the impact of earlier industrial revolutions (climate change, plastic pollution, etc.).  

Maximising positives and minimising negatives requires proactive action and dialogue, policy and intervention, standards and regulatory frameworks.  Which, of course, is also true of other contested areas of digital impact like employment, equality and human rights.  

How about some numbers?  

First energy and carbon. At the moment, digital technologies contribute around 4% to global carbon emissions. That has doubled in the last decade and is set to do so again during the next five years.  

They make up around 10% of global electricity consumption, and that’s also growing, at maybe 9% each year. Data traffic flows are trebling in around five years. 

The upshot’s that digital's the fastest growing contributor to energy consumption, and so carbon emissions, of all sectors in the world economy - and it’s the growth that matters here.  It must be mitigated if we’re to meet international carbon targets.  

This growth is driven by the digital sector’s growing importance year on year: 

  • by rapid improvements in the capability of digital technologies; 

  • by more people using more devices, in more ways, for more hours each day; 

  • and by ever more extensive processes in government and business that rely on data gathering, data traffic and data analysis.  

Digitalisation enables many benefits, and those include potential improvements in energy efficiency in other sectors.  These should be welcomed and maximised. Good. But in doing it also generates environmental costs. It’s as important to minimise and mitigate those costs as it is to maximise the benefits. There’s no point wasting gains in energy efficiency through wasteful use of energy in digital itself.

Data corporations are doing much to reduce carbon emissions by using renewable sources for their power. That's good too. But their energy use is just part of a complex balance between power and digitalisation, and it's growing fast.  More on this next week.

What about e-waste?

The digital sector’s also one of the fastest growers of pollution. The volume of global electronic waste has gone from around 34 million tonnes a year to some 54 million in the last decade, and is expected to accelerate.  Some of this is toxic and much of it is dumped in developing countries.  Far too little is recycled: under 20%.  

This too is due to more equipment being used by more businesses, organisations and individuals than before, and there’s an added issue.  Rapid improvements in digital capacity lead to rapid churn – turnover – in devices: we throw old equipment out because it can’t run the new things new technology enables.  

A growing challenge

Both these challenges – energy and waste - are certain to grow rapidly over the next decade because of the expanding role of digital.  

  • The number of Internet of Things devices is growing at near 30% each year.  

  • 5G networks, big data analysis, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous vehicles and other innovations will greatly increase data gathering, analysis and transmission, over the next twenty years.  

The challenge here, to reiterate is about maximising the positive and minimising or mitigating negatives: not one or the other.  And migitation’s as important whether or not new applications help save energy elsewhere.  We’re too far down the road to climate change and irreversible pollution for trade-offs.  We need all of those M's to work.

Assessing impacts

Researchers tend to view digitalisation’s impacts in four categories.  I’ll illustrate with reference to energy.

First, there are direct impacts – the use of energy, for instance, in manufacturing equipment, running data centres, powering computers, transmitting data traffic, running algorithms. Energy use here is certain to rise, and the principal issue’s mitigation. Renewables can only make part of the difference.

Second, indirect impacts – the outcomes of how we use these new technologies. They reduce energy consumption in some contexts – for instance in heating buildings more efficiently, managing traffic flows, and so on – but they increase it in others including new services like video streaming and virtual reality, and new equipment like digital assistants and the mass of IoT devices. The concern here is to maximise energy savings that can be made by using ICTs and minimise the energy demand from using them.

Third, there are societal impacts: the long-term changes in our societies and economies that will result from transition to a digital society. How we work, shop, and play; where we live; how much we travel; how we educate our young and heal our sick. These are hard to predict, and foresight analysis is needed.

There’s a fourth type of impact, too, that’s often overlooked: rebound effects. Greater energy efficiency doesn’t necessarily reduce consumption. Why? Because greater efficiency reduces the cost of energy to users, and that in turn raises demand. Also, changes such as home-working don’t necessarily reduce carbon emissions because homes are less energy efficient than offices and home-workers often use their cars much more for leisure.  

It’s complexities like these that mean we need a holistic perspective on digital technology in the environment as well as specific action on particular technologies and services.  

In conclusion

So what should this year’s IGF consider when it thinks about greening the internet.  I’ll suggest three things – how we can: 

  • maximise the potential value of digitalisation for environmental gain;

  • minimise and mitigate the environmental costs associated with it; 

  • and monitor the impacts which it’s having in order to enable us to do those things effectively.

To achieve this, I think we need much more serious dialogue between the internet and environmental worlds. There’s too little interaction at the moment.  Too many past discussions on this at the IGF have been led by internet insiders hyping hopes that new technology can solve things. But there’s also too little attention paid to digital developments – both positive and negative – in international environmental fora.  

I’ll say more about this, and about policy and regulatory approaches to greening the digital society, next week.

Image: E-waste, from https://www.maxpixels.net/

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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