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Curbing the digital economy’s growing environmental footprint

Curbing digital economy`s footpring
© Shutterstock/KPixMining | E-waste from discarded gadgets and devices is a growing concern.

Digital technologies offer climate solutions but carry environmental costs. A more sustainable digital transition is key to securing a better future for the planet.

With global attention on the COP28 climate summit, UNCTAD’s eWeek 2023 highlighted digitalization’s potential to accelerate climate action but also its environmental costs.

Data-driven technologies like the Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can enhance climate change monitoring, optimize energy use and production processes, and promote low-emissions technology adoption.

But the digital transformation has left its mark on the planet through raw material depletion, energy and water use, pollution and waste.

“The ‘cloud’ has a very real impact on the ground,” World Wide Waste author Gerry McGovern said on 7 December at the eWeek high-level session “The digital economy and environmental sustainability”, organized by UNCTAD and the UN Environment Programme.

Torbjorn Fredriksson, head of UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy branch, added: “We are at a crucial juncture, where the path we choose in digitalization will significantly impact our environment and, ultimately, the future of our planet.”

Up to 12% of global energy

Since 2010, global internet users have more than doubled and data traffic has expanded 25-fold. An increase in online activities like streaming videos and downloading files demands more energy and generates more emissions.

Data centres and networks powering online and cloud services generate an estimated 1% of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). And devices, data centers and ICT networks account for 6% to 12% of global energy use, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

Emerging digital services and technologies such as cloud gaming, blockchain and virtual reality are set to further increase demand for data services.

2.3 billion online shoppers

An estimated 2.3 billion people worldwide shopped online in 2021, up 68% from 2017, according to the Global Findex database.

The conveniences of e-commerce come with environmental costs, such as the waste created by the stream of packages and the GHG emissions from last mile delivery and returns.

53.6 million tons of e-waste

Electronic waste, or e-waste, from the constant flow of new gadgets and devices is a growing concern.

The latest Global E-waste Monitor reported a 21% increase in global e-waste from 2014 to 2019, reaching 53.6 million metric tons, primarily originating in developed countries. That amounts to roughly 7 kilograms per person annually – a figure that could double by 2050.

Sadly, only 17% of e-waste is properly recycled. Improper disposal can contaminate soil and water sources.

Setting a precedent for future technologies

“We must consider the digital and environmental transitions together,” Mr. Fredriksson said.

Mr. McGovern stressed the importance of governments and businesses working together to tackle all the environmental impacts of digitalization, not just emissions.

Speakers at eWeek outlined steps policymakers can take, including:

  • Enhancing data collection and transparency of ICT companies’ energy use to better inform analysis and policymaking.
  • Implementing policies to improve energy efficiency in data transmission networks, including device energy efficiency standards.

For companies, they recommended actions such as:

  • Offering customers tools to measure, report and reduce GHG emissions from their cloud services.
  • Designing devices using sustainable materials, promoting longer product lifespans and supporting the “right to repair” by providing third-party access to spare parts and repair information.
  • Using eco-friendly or reusable packaging materials and automated packaging systems to adjust box sizes to the contents.
  • Improving supply chains and delivery logistics and promoting circularity.

“Embracing these and other related practices will not only mitigate the environmental impact of digitalization but also set a precedent for future technological developments,” Mr. Fredriksson said.

eWeek discussions on digitalization and the environment reinforced the messages of the UN Secretary-General’s “Our Common Agenda,” including the Global Digital Compact.

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