Digital technology and the Internet in particular are often associated with a new, greener economy. Indeed, reducing paper consumption, using video conferences instead of flying to meetings, and introducing smart grids to save energy are but a few examples of how digitalisation can help us protect the environment.
However, the emergence of a hyper-connected way of life has caused the digital sector itself to become a major energy consumer and producer of greenhouse gases (GHG). As with most other aspects of modern day life, overconsumption is causing the planet to overheat, and technology cannot be a ‘cure-all’ solution if we don’t change certain behaviours.
A few figures to set the scene:
- The digital sector's energy consumption (related to the production and usage of devices, and to data traffic and storage) is growing by 9% per year and is expected to represent 3.3% of the world’s economic electricity consumption in 2020 (vs. 1.9% in 2013).
- The digital sector was already responsible for 3.3% of global GHG emissions in 2017, well above civil aviation (2%), often seen as one of the biggest GHG emitters. In 2020, its share is expected to reach 4%. This is as much as that of entire India in 2015!
Surprising? Turns out ‘dematerialisation’ is not completely true. The digital economy actually uses quite a bit of material – specifically ample volumes of energy and commodities – to fuel it.
Let’s start with hardware, where the ‘material’ aspect is easier to picture (production makes up 45% of the total energy consumption of the digital sector).
We have become addicted to high-tech appliances, from smartphones to tablets, laptops and connected TVs. 7 billion smartphones have been produced since Steve Jobs released his first iPhone. To keep up with the latest, lightest and fastest devices, we (in the richest parts of the world) have been buying a new smartphone every 2 years, on average!
The production phase of a smartphone represents 90% of the direct energy consumption of a smartphone throughout its entire lifecycle, so the more often we get a new one, the more costly to the environment it is.
Electronic devices are made up of thousands of components, rare metals and rare earth elements (40 on average for a smartphone), which are extracted and refined using energy- and water-intensive processes. As mines are often located in countries where environmental and social standards are very low, our race to connectivity, on top of increasing GHG emissions, often translates into deforestation and contamination of land and water (not to mention human rights violations). Recycling solutions are, for the moment, limited and are themselves energy intensive, due to the high number of different metals and low concentration rates.
To make it worse, the production and reserves of these metals are limited, and to secure supply, the digital sector is in direct competition with renewable energies, since the production of windfarms, solar panels and batteries requires some of the same scarce resources.
It is therefore key to extend the life of our devices and fight against planned obsolescence.
Data traffic and storage
Now let’s jump to the even more surprising side of our digital footprint, which is less tangible to users: data traffic and storage.
Already in 2013, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt claimed that “every 2 days, we create as much information as we did up to 2003”. While this is difficult to verify, it gives a taste of the excesses of the ‘Big Data’ era. Data has been growing exponentially, due to the progression of connectivity in the emerging world, and to hyper-connectivity in more developed countries, including the Internet of Things.