Two worlds apart? Harmonizing digitalization and the environment

There are substantial, yet surmountable, barriers to unlocking digitalization’s environmental potential.

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3 minute READ

Daniel Akinmade Emejulu

Program Manager, UN Affairs, Microsoft and Co-Chair, IGF PNE Multistakeholder Working Group

Last year was billed by some as a ‘super year’ for the environment, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) in November taking centre stage. But, with some of these multilateral processes spilling over into this year, the widely accepted need for a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and growing commentary linking the invasion of Ukraine to broader energy security issues, environmental action looks set to be equally prominent in 2022.  

The environmental footprint of digital transformation can no longer be an afterthought.

One international event that flew below the radar of many environmental summit watchers in 2021 was the 16th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held both online and in Katowice, Poland. The IGF is a global multi-stakeholder platform mandated by the UN General Assembly to facilitate discussion of public policy issues around internet governance. At face value, this may seem to have little to do with the environment, but with the perpetual treadmill of device upgrades, energy consumption, resource extraction and use and e-waste associated with information and communication technologies (ICT), there is increasing recognition that the environmental footprint of digital transformation can no longer be an afterthought.

Many have been replacing international flights with video streaming, conferencing, online gaming and social networking over the past two years and, predictably, global internet traffic surged by 40 per cent in 2020. While the impacts may seem trivial in comparison to the environmental externalities of heavy industry and aviation, for example, the pre-pandemic carbon footprint of ICT was already thought to be on a par with the aviation industry and e-waste is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream with only 17 per cent being collected and recycled.

But, alongside the risks, digital technologies also present compelling opportunities for halting acceleration towards multiple planetary boundaries and for addressing the pressing ‘code red for humanity’ challenges presented by the latest climate science. Digitalization is facilitating a growth – and democratization – of more reliable environmental data, for example, improving resource-use efficiency, enabling more transparent and circular supply chains and looks set to revolutionize transport and mobility – potentially cutting road-transport energy use in half.

However, these resource and efficiency gains risk being undermined by the Jevons paradox where more intensive use of products or services results in a rebound effect of increased total resource use. The IGF’s Policy Network on Environment and Digitalization (PNE) has considered such environmental opportunities and risks associated with the increasingly pervasive and profound digital transformation of economies and societies around the world and has proposed a series of recommendations in four priority areas.

Environmental data

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, raised five alarms for 2022 including on climate action. With advances in environmental data, it is now possible to capture trillions of data points, ranging from patterns in carbon sequestration and glacial ice movements, to real-time changes in forest cover and biodiversity loss. A consistent and unified approach to managing and reporting these data points optimizes our collective decision-making ability – and the accountability systems needed – to meet the UN’s call to make peace with nature. 

It is now possible to capture patterns in carbon sequestration and glacial ice movements and real-time changes in forest cover and biodiversity loss.

The PNE report advises that Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Re-usable (FAIR) environmental data is paramount to analyzing what has happened in the past, what is happening today and what will possibly happen to the environment in the future thereby empowering businesses, individuals and governments to take corrective action.

In February 2022, a coalition including UNEP, the ClimateWorks Foundation, the Global Carbon Project, Stanford, EY, Deloitte, KPMG, Microsoft and others, launched a worldwide Carbon Call. The initiative centres on data reliability and interoperability and addresses greenhouse gas emissions and removal accounting challenges that companies face across all scopes of emissions.

For individuals, accessible and streamlined environmental data also empowers consumers to take climate action by tracing a product’s provenance and considering its environmental footprint through digital product passports.

Food and water systems

In food and water systems, given the vast heterogeneity of physical characteristics and capacities of production landscapes, as well as the enormous cultural significance of many food and water traditions, digital transformation in this realm requires applying a great deal of contextual sensitivity by respecting and complementing traditional systems.

Digital transformation in food and water systems requires applying contextual sensitivity.

Although there is much excitement – and potential – around efficiency improvements and decoupling food and water systems from resource use through, for example, autonomous field technologies, precision-farming robotics and high-tech vertical farming, digitalization can be as applicable to bottom-up agro-ecological approaches as it can be to top-down industrialized approaches.

But ensuring it contributes to positive outcomes demands genuine stakeholder ownership and engagement. In lower-income countries – where much of the world’s food is produced – the potential impacts from food and water system digitalization may be most significant both for the winners and the losers that risk being left behind. Governments are therefore encouraged to commit significant resources to local community-based initiatives that are increasing capacities at local levels to collect and use data to inform decision-making for climate resilient approaches to achieving food and water security.

Supply chain transparency and circularity

With supply chain transparency and circularity, the digitalization of the custody of materials, parts, production of devices, use and reuse, recycling and recovery of secondary materials, can bring accountability to phenomenally complex and often opaque ICT supply chains.

E-waste reduction requires both the circular design of products and much broader adoption of circular business models.

Vital to the achievement of traceability in these supply chains are international standards that codify localized examples of best practices and environmental requirements into strictures that are adhered to globally.

E-waste reduction, for example, requires both the circular design of products for improved reparability and longer lifespans and much broader adoption of circular business models, such as offering refurbished second-hand products, ICT products as a service – including leasing and collective ownership – and product sharing and product buyback obligations that incentivize producers to maximize the lifetime and durability of their products.

Overarching considerations

There are overarching considerations at the nexus of digitalization and environment. A prime consideration is mobilizing the resources of wealthy, historically-polluting, countries to support developing nations with smaller environmental footprints which also face severe and frequent environmental risks. To this end, SDG17.7 targets technology transfer – a largely untapped mechanism to boost North-South cooperation – by promoting the development, transfer and diffusion of environmentally sound technologies.

But, while the SDG target focuses on technology transfer for developing countries on ‘favourable terms’, governments often struggle to allocate adequate resources. The Green Climate Fund has reached 127 developing countries over the last 12 years, with disbursements of $2.1 billion to support green projects for energy generation, transportation, industry and infrastructure, yet multilateral financing is often challenging to access.

Private sector players are increasingly investing in environmentally-sound technology too. Microsoft, for example, launched a $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund to accelerate technology development and deployment of new climate innovations including carbon reduction, capture and removal technologies. The Climate Innovation Fund is global in reach with a focus on investments in underfunded markets and developing countries. However, more public-private cooperation is necessary to finance the environment and digitalization interplay.

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Unlocking potential

Realizing the profound environmental promises of digital transformation will require greater intentional resource mobilization and proactive governance of technological developments.

With over a third of the world’s population – nearly 3 billion people – never having used the internet, and with inequitable access to, distribution of and control over data, skills and resources persisting, there remain substantial – but surmountable – barriers to unlocking digitalization’s environmental potential.