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This year’s Internet Governance Forum was held last week in Kyoto, Japan. As usual there were many sessions, on many subjects. Artificial intelligence played a bigger role than last year and will no doubt play a bigger still next year (when the Forum will be held in Saudi Arabia).

I’ve been working on issues to do with digitalisation and the environment, and was one of the speakers in the main session on the subject at this IGF. As the risks from climate change increase – alongside other environmental problems resulting from past and present human activity – sustainability should be a major theme in every global discourse, including the IGF and the Global Digital Compact that’s currently planned by the United Nations. Too often, though, it’s still considered marginal.

Here, to restart this blog after its extended Northern summer  / Southern winter break, is what I had to say last week.

In his speech to the IGF on Monday, the prime minister of Japan said that artificial intelligence is poised to change the history of mankind. That’s also true of climate change. What we do today in relation to both these things is crucial to our future. We need to think of their relationship with one another.

I’ll start with what I see as a fundamental problem. There just isn’t enough dialogue or understanding between digital and environmental communities of experts and communities of practice.

There’s not enough discussion in environmental decision-making spaces of the impact digital technologies will have on the environment. But not enough understanding in digital spaces either of the environmental context and how it should affect the decisions that we make.

Three fundamentals

So let me say three things to start with.

Digital policies that aren’t environmentally sustainable won’t be sustainable in any other terms. So we should be aiming for an inclusive and environmentally sustainable digital society.

Achieving this isn’t simple, and it’s certainly not guaranteed.

If we’re to achieve it we have, of course, to maximise the contribution digitalisation makes to mitigating environmental harms in other sectors. This is often discussed among digital insiders. But we also need to minimise the environmental footprint that’s due to digitalisation itself.

This is not a trade-off; both are fundamental. I’m going to suggest five reasons why this is difficult and then five policy approaches.

The meaning of sustainability

It’s difficult because it’s complex, and widely misunderstood.

Sustainability’s not just about the environment, but about the interface between economic prosperity, social welfare and environmental viability. That was the fundamental message of the Brundtland Commission and the Earth Summit that kicked off concern about sustainability in the last century. But these often throw up different priorities.

The range of environmental issues

Environmental impacts from a digital society aren’t just concerned with climate change. They raise at least three critical problems. As well as energy consumption and climate, there’s unsustainable exploitation of scarce minerals and other resources. And growing volumes of e-waste, with little recycling taking place and much dumping in developing countries.

The complexity of impacts

Impacts are diverse, some positive, some negative, all difficult to measure. We need to consider not just direct impacts from the way we make and use digital resources, but indirect impacts arising from new types of activity such as e-commerce, rebound effects that arise when efficiency improvements lead to more consumption, and societal impacts arising from changes in the ways we live and work and play.

The diversity of national environments

These impacts differ greatly between countries. Many of the benefits of digitalisation are experienced most in richer countries; more of the environmental burdens are felt in lower-income countries.

The future of technology

And these impacts are certain to grow rapidly as a result of AI and the Internet of Things – potentially some good impacts, some bad, but all affecting those three critical areas I mentioned earlier: resource depletion, energy consumption, waste. Any framework for the governance of AI should have environmental sustainability at its heart.

Five suggestions for policymakers – in government, business and civil society

I promised five suggestions for improving governance.

The first’s to build much stronger dialogue between fora such as this and those concerned with the environment.

There’s a tendency in fora like the IGF to promise digital “solutions” that look good to digital insiders but haven’t been tested out on those they’re meant to help. The digital community needs to listen more to environmental experts and those dealing with environmental problems. I’d like to see a main session at the IGF that listens to speakers from environmental agencies talking about their priorities, before considering what digitalisation has to offer.

The second’s to build environmental sustainability into digital policymaking at global, regional and national levels.

UNCTAD will be looking at how to make e-commerce more inclusive and environmentally sustainable in its next Digital Economy Report. Other international organisations could do the same in the sectors for which they are responsible. And governments should audit digital strategies in pursuit of green as well as digital outcomes.

The third’s concerned with the need to build a more circular digital economy – one that requires fewer scarce resources and less energy consumption, extends the life of data centres and devices, makes them more adaptable, encourages recycling and reuse, reduces waste.

There are responsibilities here for all stakeholders: for governments creating regulatory frameworks and incentives; for technologists and businesses designing services that are environmentally responsible; for citizens adopting more sustainable consumption.

One might describe this as optimising, rather than maximising, digitalisation. For approaches to it, I’d recommend a look at early work from the UN’s CODES partnership (the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability) and at the Digital Reset report submitted recently to the European Union.

The fourth’s to do with standards – standard-setting bodies should include environmental factors in the development of standards (for instance reducing use of energy and scarce resources).

Businesses should do the same when designing applications, networks and devices.

And the last’s to do with monitoring what’s happening – what’s beneficial and what’s not – so they governments and international organisations can put together a more substantial evidence base that will enable us to build that inclusive and environmentally sustainable digital society.

This requires digital businesses to be honest and transparent about their impacts – with transparency and accountability, and no more “greenwashing”.

And it requires much more independent evaluation and analysis: which could and should be multistakeholder, could and should involve UN and other international agencies, and must cover all countries, not just those in which it’s easiest to measure.

Those would be five broad proposals to make the policy and practice of digitalisation more environmentally sustainable. But there’s a great deal of detailed work required to give them substance, and commitment needed from actors/stakeholders across the board and globe.


Image: Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

David Souter writes a fortnightly 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.