Tech’s Dirty Secret

The environmental impact of digital technologies, a missed discussion in the sustainable debate.

By Nayelly Landeros – jan 9, 2021

Batman is in a constant state of alert to protect citizens of Gotham city. Yet, fighting crime and pursuing justice seems to pay dearly to the environment. Going from human to hero requires an impressive arsenal- the batsuit, the batmobile, the batwing, a bat computer. By building and using all those cool gears, Batman releases about 2,499,610 kg of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions a year.  Is he doing more harm than good to the planet?

Like Batman, information and communication technologies (ICT) have proven to be a double-edged sword when it comes to climate and the environment. On one hand, it is estimated that digital technologies are capable of reducing up to 15% of the global carbon emissions by 2030. At the same time, according to the Shift Project, a climate think tank, the tech sector amounts to more than 2% of the global GHG emissions itself, which is even higher than the footprint of the entire aviation sector. 

It may be difficult to picture the environmental impact of sending a text, reading this article, sharing a post or buying the new iPhone. But out of sight, out of mind does not apply to the environmental impact. Everyone’s actions emit a certain amount of CO2, even in the digital world.

From the significant resources used and the allocation of energy for the assembly of an electronic device to the energy needs of massive data centres and the eventual disposal of the devices, there are diverse emission sources over the lifespan of digital technology (Williams, 
2011). Despite the lack of a consistent methodological framework to assess the environmental impact of the ICT (Santarius et al., 2020), the usage and disposal of digital technologies and network equipment are deemed as the greatest contributors of the digital world.

Given that the environmental assessment depends on the specific circumstances of deployment and use of specific technology (Berkhout and Hertin, 2004), existing studies differ on the sector’s carbon impact – from 1.4% to 4% of the global carbon emissions. It is not shocking that claims diverge as to whether the carbon footprint of the broadcasting of the hit song “Despacito” equals to the annual energy consumption of five African nations or not.

With electronic devices outnumbering humans on Earth ( WEF, 
2019 ), ICT is currently one of the fastest-growing sectors in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and energy management. Since the sustainable digital economy is not yet a reality, several aspects of the ICT industry need to be rethought to ensure that the technology is used in the best possible way to enable sustainable development. 

E-waste, a gold mine

“Big Tech must stop manipulating consumers and tell them the whole truth about their practices and products,” said Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovic, after Apple settled to pay $113 million to solve the 34-state iPhone Batterygate investigation. The batterygate is part of some scandals and theories on the planned obsolescence of BigTechs’ devices that nudge users into buying newer and more expensive devices. That is not only a problem for your wallet but also for the environment.

The fast spread of short-term consumerism due to the rapid obsolescence of hardware and software and increasing affordability, along with the short life span and limited repair options, has led to a high turnover of electronic devices and a rapid increase in the waste stream of electronic equipment (William, 2014). Any product with circuitry or electrical components with power or battery supply that has been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of reuse is considered waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) or, simply, e-waste (Forti et al. 2018).

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced, which equals in weight all commercial aircrafts ever built (WEF, 2019). The projected amount of waste by 2030 is 74.7 million tonnes, which is almost double in only 15 years (Forti et al. 2018)

According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2020, only 17.9% of e-waste in 2019 was collected and recycled. There is not enough reliable information about the disposal of the remaining 82.6%. But most of the time, it ends up in illegal landfills, illegally incinerated or disposed of in a non-environmentally sound way in developing countries (Forti. et al, 2020).

The inadequate management of e-waste further becomes a health and environmental contamination issue. Mercury and other metals produce hazardous substances that pollute water sources and landfills that are later entering the food system through livestock and fish. Also alarming are the studies reporting that exposure to informal electronic recycling is associated with adverse health effects especially for children and women. The cherry on the top, e-waste also supposes a significant loss of valuable scarce non-renewable and critical raw materials such as cobalt or palladium, which are difficult to extract and are often associated with human rights risks.

But there is hope: recycling e-waste is a goldmine, literally. There is more gold in a tonne of smartphones than in a ton of ore from a gold mine. E-waste is worth  $62.5 billion annually, which is three times higher than the outcome of silver mining and the GDP of some countries. Improving e-waste collection and recycling practices is a great way for countries to mitigate material demand sustainably.

There is a need to change the way we consume, produce and dispose of electronic devices. Placing the mix of right policies that guarantee efficient materials, e-recycling and tracking statistical data could lead to global circular value chains and the creation of jobs around the world. From the consumer’s side, there are also great voluntary initiatives, like Restart, trying to fix our relationship with electronics by sharing and teaching consumers to repair their own broken devices and prolong the value and use their electronics for longer.

A power guzzler: the cloud’s dirty secret

A data-hungry society uses more and more data and requires more and more clouds and more and more energy.  The cleaner the energy diet, the more climate-friendly it is.

Beyond taping, we do not really deal with the physical externalities of using the cloud. But all “virtual activities” consume energy and have a carbon footprint.  Let’s illustrate what is involved in a naughty click to broadcast This video is bad for climate change: Thank you for watching!  Despite the several methodologies for calculating the energy footprint, let’s keep it very simple. First, energy consumption was needed to extract the magical materials that enable devices to function. A few grams of GHGs are emitted by electricity consumption to power our gadgets and our wifi-connection. Perhaps more invisible, but even more energy-intensive, are the data centres that store the video, so that it can be transmitted and displayed on the electronic device. Streaming that video just emitted about 8 grams of CO2. -You can get a more accurate calculation by adjusting the viewing device, the video definition and the country where you watched it using this tool from the International Energy Agency.

The ICT sector represents between 5-9% of the world’s electricity consumption. An 80% reduction could be achieved if the industry switches to renewable energies. This would be the way forward because widespread digitalization is said to be able to reduce global energy use by 20% per year.

Making digitalization greener requires not only clean but more energy-efficient consumption. These can be achieved by finding more effective ways to cool down the data centres. Likewise, going greener entails an urgency on environmental performance transparency and industries’ commitments.

Towards sustainable digital technology

The question is not to slow down the pace of innovation or live off the grid, but to rethink digital technology. Just as in other wicked problems, awareness, participation, and collaboration at all levels are key to driving and solving the paradox of achieving sustainable digital technology.

Consumers can extend the life of our devices, and encourage sustainable consumption. Industry sector shall ensure circular economy processes in the design of digital devices along with more efficient and clean energy consumption. And relevant policies and legislation must be  put in place to improve e-waste recycling and boost the way society produces, consumes, and disposes of electronic devices. In a nutshell, we need a new circular vision of the digital world.

Most consumers are poorly informed and unaware of the environmental impact of their Internet usage and digital devices (Elgaaïed-Gambier, L., et al 2020). With this in mind, this post can hopefully contribute to raise awareness and ultimately do its bit in building a more circular end energy-efficient ICT sector.