"We have to rethink our relationship with the digital world"
Digital technology has proven to be a handy tool during the pandemic, enabling teachers to give their classes remotely while providing a sense of community for isolated citizens. Although it occupies a central place in our lives, the environmental nuisances it generates are too often ignored. According to a report presented in June to the French Senate, digital technologies are responsible for 3.7% of greenhouse gas emissions. To curb the growth of the sector's ecological footprint, some are advocating for sobriety. In this interview, Xavier Verne, a member of The Shift Project think tank, discusses the environmental consequences of our digital lifestyles and the importance of adopting a more eco-friendly approach.
How would you define the concept of digital sobriety?
Digital sobriety consists of providing sustainable communication and information technologies. It comes from the realization that the resources we use to manufacture our phones, 4G antennas, or data centers are not sustainable nor easily recyclable to this day. We all need to take care of them so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of digital technologies in the long term.
Since the invention of computing and communication technologies, we have lived in an unprecedented era of abundance in the history of humanity. There has been no shortage of resources, while uses and the volumes of data exchanged have grown exponentially. For instance, the capacity of hard drives has doubled every twelve months for the last forty years. Yet our computers are full very quickly, even though many of us tend to back up a large part of our data in the cloud. This systemic phenomenon is known as the rebound effect. The more our communication and storage capacities increase, the more we grow our use of them. For example, we have noticed that people are taking more and more photos and videos as our devices’ resolution improves.
At Shift Project, we believe that after a period of digital "obesity," we need to return to a more reasonable approach. In line with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we must ensure that our net CO2 emissions are reduced by 5% per year. Last year, the digital sector contributed to 4% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
Tackling digital pollution appears to be a collective effort in which companies have an essential role to play...
As soon as we start to take an interest in digital pollution, we realize that it is a systemic problem. Energy and greenhouse gas emissions are not just due to the manufacturing phase of technological devices or data centers. We all need to adopt more eco-responsible habits and attitudes towards the digital world. And this applies to consumers, phone manufacturers, or mobile telephone operators.
A study by Carbone 4 still revealed that, even if every consumer behaved like an environmental hero daily, this would not be enough to meet the 2°C objective of the Paris Agreement. Companies and public institutions must imperatively take part in this collective effort. It is crucial to act individually, but this will not be enough to solve the problem.
A significant wave of companies, which are heavy users of digital technologies for their activities, are now taking an interest in the issue of digital sobriety. In particular, they are seeking to identify the risks they are facing and to put in place programs to reduce their CO2 emissions. Although there is awareness among companies, it is important to avoid green-washing. There is no point in announcing good news that would only account for 0.01% of the problem. The Shift Project has already received very favorable feedback from business leaders, who say they find in our reports elements of methodology that help them to implement acceptable practices and have a serious approach to digital pollution.
Why is it more difficult to talk about ecology in the digital world than in other sectors?
This issue is relatively new in the digital sector compared to the transport and construction industries. The State quickly regulated them to limit their repercussions on the environment, which has yet to happen for the digital sector. The impact of digital technologies on the consumption of natural resources and electricity has long been ignored. But the various actors in the digital ecosystem are gradually taking an interest in it.
On the other hand, the digital world has always been presented and perceived as something dematerialized. Let's take the term "digital cloud.” A cloud is often seen as something vaporous and relatively harmless. How can we imagine that the digital cloud could harm the planet? Digital technologies have no objective materiality, although they do have one in reality. We can observe this phenomenon with data centers. A recent study showed that energy demand in European data centers increased by 40% between 2010 and 2018. We need to get away from this stereotypical image of the digital world that, by dematerializing it, cancels its environmental footprint. We are convinced at the Shift Project that digital technologies can be put to good use, which is what digital sobriety is all about.
What good practices should we adopt to move towards greater digital sobriety?
From a consumer perspective, it is relatively easy to try not to spend too much time in front of screens outside of work. You can also extend your devices’ lifespan and make sure that you buy technological equipment that is as sustainable as possible. Some websites can help you in this task by indicating the repairability index of the various electronic products available on the market. It is important to try to use the same laptop or smartphone for an extended period. And this is doable if you protect your devices with cases and covers.
We must also try to make our habits greener through small changes, such as turning off our internet box at night. While we have been spending more time in virtual meetings with teleworking, a new Greenspector study has looked at the energy consumption of some of the most popular video conferencing apps. This ranking provides information on which tools to use daily and how to use them responsibly. For instance, the use of video during a virtual meeting consumes a lot of energy and leads to huge volumes of exchanged data. We need to use our webcams more wisely and activate them just at the beginning of a meeting to greet everybody.
Changing our digital habits is not a piece of cake, but it can lead to substantial gains for the environment. These eco-friendly practices force us to rethink our relationship with the digital world, without giving up the level of comfort we enjoy nowadays.
What about big tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, or Facebook? What role could they play concerning digital pollution?
These players are on the move and have all made announcements regarding carbon neutrality. Some have even explained that they are planning on canceling the greenhouse gas emissions they have created since the beginning of their activity. But this is a somewhat utopian vision as studies have shown that we are far gone beyond that point. Being CO2 negative does not “cancel” the number of greenhouse gases that have been emitted in the past.
Furthermore, these companies rely tremendously on digital technologies for their activities and are very committed to saving energy. In recent years, they have developed new technologies as well as real expertise on the topic. But they continue to neglect the environmental impact of their servers, which are a crucial component to remaining at the cutting edge of innovation. This is why these companies update their servers much more frequently than others while neglecting the environmental impact of such procedures. They also tend to think in terms of compensation and finance major reforestation operations. However, this is far from being a strategy as simple as it seems.
But there is a much deeper issue concerning the cultural posture and business model of these tech giants. Take platforms such as Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook. Their business model is based on viewership and the ideology of "more is more,” which is not compatible per se with digital sobriety. This is what they need to work on to be more respectful of the environment.
This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.