Digital aspects and the environment

The lines between the physical and digital world are increasingly blurred. Rapid digitalisation is changing the natural environment. It is changing the way we observe, understand, and interact with our ecosystem. It is also changing the actions we take on environmental issues. Just think of the Greta effect and the increase in online youth activism on climate change.

Latest: Follow reports from the Internet Governance Forum track on environment

As digital aspects and the environment interact more and more, we are asking deeper questions. How can digital technology help us protect the environment in better ways? What is the environmental footprint of digitalisation? Can the digital transformation be sustainable? How can technology contribute to a circular economy?

These are just some of the questions that society is starting to address, as the interplay between digital aspects and technology grows stronger.

In the video below, Dr Jovan Kurbalija explains the philosophical and historical roots between nature and digitalisation.

International action on digital aspects and the environment

Today, digital and environmental issues are prominent public policy topics worldwide. Yet, this is by no means an issue of modern times.

In 1853, the Brussels maritime conference, held in Brussels at the initiative of US Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, was tasked with out to establish 'a uniform system of meteorological observations at sea'. The conference set out the international maritime standards and called for the sharing of data on oceans. In order to exchange information, the participants of the conference decided to use the Morse code that was developed 10 years prior to the event in Brussels. Since then, technology has evolved. Radio and fax have been replaced by computers, but the challenges have remained similar throughout time. Since the 19th century, the International Meteorological Organisation, and later on, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has coordinated a global system for collecting, processing and using data. Meteorological data flew across the national border at the peak of the Cold War back in the 1960s. 

Today, the WMO system coordinates more than 10.000 land, sea and air-based observation stations that enable the collection of vast amounts of weather-related data.

WMO weather station map

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They collect real-time data and share it worldwide for weather forecast and climate projections. Also, through numerical analysis, the WMO became a pioneer in developing algorithms and other artificial intelligence (AI) based applications a long time before this topic gained in prominence. A lot can be learned on data and AI from a unique system run by WMO, which quietly runs and supplies us with vital insights ranging from evening weather forecasts to projections on global warming.

Other initiatives that combine technology and the environment can also be observed within other international bodies. To illustrate, in January 2020, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) issued recommendation ITU-T L.1470 (01/2020) entitled ‘GHG emissions trajectories for the ICT sector compatible with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement’. The recommendation developed in collaboration with GeSI, GSMA and SBTi provides trajectories to ICT companies in relation to reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to meet the targets outlined during COP21. Additional specificities on the trajectories are set out in a document - ‘Guidance for ICT companies setting science based targets’- that accompanies the recommendation. 

Staying within the global context, the recent addition of environmental sustainability as a working track within the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) also marks an effort to address digital and environmental questions together. 

The EU and its European Green Deal also interlinks policy efforts on digital technologies and the environment. Among other things, it highlights that the EU Commission ‘will explore measures to ensure that digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, cloud and edge computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT) can accelerate and maximise the impact of policies to deal with climate change and protect the environment’. The deal also announces the adoption of the European Industrial Strategy that will specifically tackle the 'twin challenges of the green and the digital transformation’. 

Similarly, the recently published communication ‘Shaping Europe’s digital future’ addresses the interplay between tech and the environment by underlining that tech can ‘support the decarbonisation of all sectors and reduce the environmental and social footprint of products placed on the EU market’.

Digital technology is not necessarily good or bad and it has both a direct and an indirect effect on the environment. The bright side is that digital technology such as AI, big data, IoT, and blockchain is revolutionising our approach to conservation of biodiversity, clean energy development, and the management of natural disasters.

Studies - including a publication by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) entitled ‘Turning digital technology innovation into climate action’ - are not short on analysis and recommendations for the eco-friendly application of digital technology. 

The opportunities of digital technologies have also been explored in the context of the circular economy, namely how artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing, and other emerging technologies could facilitate the transition from the current linear economic model towards a more responsible one. For instance, augmented reality can help repair rather than replace damaged products while AI can accelerate the development of new circular products that are free of dangerous chemicals and materials, and optimise infrastructure so as to ensure a circular flow of product. In other words, digital technologies can help boost the economy and increase resource efficiency while reducing waste. 

To illustrate, research conducted by PwC on ‘How can AI enable a sustainable future’ shows that the use of AI technologies in the context of environment can have a positive effect positive effect on the global GDP, CO2 emissions as well as net employment as illustrated below.  


PwC data AI and environment

Staying within the lines of sustainability, a GeSI report explores how a ‘more informed and purposeful deployment of digital technologies can catalyse’ environmental action. It predicts that ICTs will have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% by 2030 which is, nonetheless, short of the 45% required in order to comply with the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement. That said, much hope is placed in AI and big data. 

So what can tech actually do?

Big data and AI algorithms can be used to monitor and preserve endangered species on land, as well as provide early warning against natural disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and droughts. Data collection and satellite imagery tools can also help ensure ocean sustainability by preventing overfishing and by monitoring the health and pollution levels of marine ecosystems and ocean habitats. However, that is not all there is to AI and data. Smart grids powered by AI can help monitor trends in energy consumption and ultimately reduce the emission of GHGs.

Blockchain is another digital technology that may revolutionise environmental efforts. According to the report entitled ‘Building Block(chain)s for a Better Planet’, blockchain technologies could have several uses in environmental sustainability. For instance, blockchain could allow for decentralised and sustainable resource management, including water and energy consumption. In addition, it could help conserve marine biodiversity by preventing practices such as overfishing through traceable and transparent supply chains.

No discussion on emerging technologies would be complete without IoT. While the term ‘Internet of Environment’ might be more appropriate in this case, sensors connected to the Internet can help monitor and prevent deforestation that accounts for 15% of global GHG emissions. IoT can also be used to combat poaching practices by tracking endangered animals, monitoring animal behavior, and implementing smart security and surveillance systems. 

Other uses of digital technologies such as online platforms and mobile applications include raising awareness, early warning, and information sharing. 

Revealing the invisible

The other more disruptive side of digital technology is far from trivial. There is growing discussion about the short and long-term negative implications of digital technology on the natural environment. 

Media articles often address the ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ pollution caused by the Internet. Some estimates show that if the Internet were a country, it would rank 5th or 6th in the world in terms of electricity consumption. Google alone contributes to roughly 40% of Internet’s CO2 emissions, which explains why it is regarded as the biggest polluter on the Internet. Other digital technologies are no different. At present, they account for 4% of global emissions, which is more than the emissions from much more talked about industries such as aviation.

Digital Pollution

Unfortunately, the environmental impact of our digital transformation does not stop there. 

According to data from 2019,  bitcoin mining is said to consume 64.15 TWh of electricity per year, which exceeds the energy consumption of whole countries like Chile, Switzerland, New Zealand, or Bangladesh. Very large quantities of electricity are also consumed by domain name servers and some 7,000 data centers worldwide that run continuously. These data centers use around 2% of global electricity and forecasts show that their energy consumption will rise to 8% by 2030. Similarly, predictions indicate that the emergence of 5G technology is expected to triple the energy consumption of mobile phone operators in the upcoming five years. Online video streaming also features amongst the biggest polluters. In 2018, it is estimated that this action released more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to the total annual GHG emissions of Spain. But, where is all this digital content consumed? 

The link between digital divide and e-waste

Research from the Shift Project shows that ‘digital consumption is currently highly polarised’. Findings show that in 2018, on average every American owned around 10 connected devices and consumed roughly 140 gigabytes of data per month which is far above the average of one device and 2 gigabytes of data consumed in India per month. 

So, what happens with all these devices once we replace them with newer models? 

Regarded as the “fastest-growing waste stream in the world”, e-waste such as outdated electronic equipment including computers, smartphones, and TVs constitutes a rather significant ecological issue. A report by the World Economic Forum indicates that around 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced annually - out of which only 20% gets recycled. The remaining 80% of e-waste usually ends up buried underground. While the vast majority of e-waste is produced by developed countries, most of it is treated (i.e. dismantled and processed in so-called e-dumps) in developing countries. 

In order to promote recycling, reduce the disposal of e-waste, and combat illegal dumping, the ITU in partnership with the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) and the UN University established the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, which gathers relevant data and organises workshops on statistics collection that are necessary for the realisation of SDGs. Moreover, the ITU also adopted a set of ‘guidelines for developing a sustainable e-waste management system’ where it drafted out ‘policy and legal frameworks, collection mechanisms, financial mechanisms and engagement with all relevant stakeholders.  

While the recycling of e-waste might seem like the most reasonable option, it also comes at a cost. Contact with harmful toxic materials such as lead, chromium, and cadmium can trigger serious health conditions, including respiratory illnesses and lung cancer to which child workers are particularly vulnerable.  

Despite the piles of e-waste, demand for new high-tech gadgets continues to grow and to deepen environmental consequences. Nearly all digital technologies contain metals and minerals known as rare earths that are essential to their functioning and are only at times recycled from e-waste. A smartphone is said to contain 16 out of 17 different rare earth metals. While the metals themselves are not rare, the mining process raises serious environmental concerns given that it causes extensive damage to soil, contaminates water with chemicals used during the extraction process, and requires costly cleanup operations. 

When tables turn 

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Oregon, rising sea levels could cause damage to submarine cables - particularly in coastal areas in the US - and ultimately disrupt the functioning of the Internet in the coming 15 years

Similarly, the depletion of the ozone layer that in turn contributes to the increase in the intensity of ultraviolet rays from the sun will most likely hamper the electromagnetic frequency along which Wi-Fi travels.  

Leading by example?

Tech giants are progressively positioning themselves as green actors

On 19 September 2019, Amazon announced its climate pledge through which it has committed to fulfilling Paris Agreement targets 10 years ahead of the deadline. The company also plans to operate using 100% renewable energy by 2030. The largest buyer of renewable energy worldwide, Google, has been carbon-neutral since 2007 and has taken measures to recycle equipment, including the recycling of older servers into new ones. 

As a carbon-neutral enterprise, Microsoft, for its part, announced its plan to become carbon negative (i.e. eliminate more CO2 than it emits by 2030). In order to step up its effort, it has set up a Climate Innovation Fund intended for the development of technologies that combat the emission of GHGs, while its AI for Earth programme gives actors working on environmental challenges access to AI technology and their cloud. 

Apple has also made advances in the field of environmental conservation. Since 2014, Its data centers have operated using 100% renewable energy, which in turn has reduced GHG emissions by its facilities by 54% worldwide. 

The gaming industry is also making strides towards environmental consciousness as outlined in the ‘Playing for the Planet’ report. With over 2.3 billion users, the industry offers ample opportunity for greater outreach and awareness on environmental issues. Video games such as World Rescue - supported by UNESCO and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development - and My Green World give players the opportunity to address the issues of deforestation, drought, and pollution.

While in-house green efforts might not be new for the tech industry, tech companies are increasingly taking advantage of business opportunities in the oil and gas industry, which is by far one of the biggest polluters. To illustrate, Amazon entered the oil industry in 2018 when it started selling Amazon Full Synthetic Motor Oil

In order to store vast amounts of data on cloud servers - Chevron alone generates more than a terabyte of data per day from its oil wells - oil companies are striking deals with tech giants like Microsoft and Google. While the argument is that data collection allows for better optimisation and more efficient oil exploitation, the tech industry has yet to decide in which direction it will lead the way.

Geneva's role in reconciling nature, society and technology

Geneva is a place where technology ‘meets' humanity and nature. It is the place where countries negotiate delicate interplay between technological developments, societal impact and environmental concerns.

To learn how the City of Geneva ‘walks the talk’ by applying these global narratives on nature and society in practice, watch the interview with Mr Sami Kanaan, Head of the Department for Cultural and Digital Transition at the City of Geneva.

What can nature and evolution teach us on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Algorithms?

Watch the interview with Dr Pierre Andre Loizeau, Director of Conservatory and Botanical Garden at the City of Geneva.