Five important questions about the environmental impacts of increased digital use
There are high expectations for the role the ICT sector will play in the transition to the circular economy and the reduction of emissions. The big picture is complicated, however, and more information is needed.
The Covid-19 crisis has led to the increased use of digital products and services in workplaces and homes around the world, but there has been little discussion about the environmental impact of this increase.
While greater use of ICT and online technology for remote work has led to some obvious environmental benefits, it has also burdened the environment in other ways.
As befits the theme of the past year, Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications published in early December 2020 the final report of its working group on a climate and environmental strategy for the ICT sector. The final report presents a vision of Finland as a pioneer in using and developing sustainable ICT solutions and proposes measures to accomplish the vision.
With this strategy work, Finland has become one of the first countries in the world to comprehensively review the climate and environmental impacts of the ICT industry. National initiatives have also been seen in Germany and France. The topic was also one of the key themes during the German presidency of the Council of the EU.
So, the theme is of interest, and now is the time to act. With regard to the environmental impacts of increased use of digital technology, answers are needed to the following five questions.
What is the impact of the ICT infrastructure on energy consumption?
Greater use of ICT increases data consumption and the number of new digital services. The growth is visible in the volumes of data transferred across data networks and data stored and processed in data centres.
The biggest environmental impacts of communication networks and data centres are caused by their in-use energy consumption.
The data communication network of Finland is very mobile-driven: the volume of mobile data consumed relative to the population is the highest in the world. Underlying this is Finland’s desire to be a pioneer in building and deploying mobile networks and the low consumer pricing combined with limitless mobile data subscriptions.
Mobile networks are considerably worse than fixed networks in terms of energy efficiency. Studies show that watching an online video at home, for example, consumes the least energy when it is watched over a fixed fibre optic network. However, the increase caused by a wireless home network to the energy consumption of the fibre network is relatively minor.
In addition to consumers’ increasing data use, data transfer and processing are increased by new emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things and block chains. The number of services based on data and cloud services also increases the need for data centres. Even though new data centres are considerably more energy-efficient than old data centres, the increasing number and larger size of the centres increase energy consumption.
Because use of digital technology will only increase and the consumption of data will multiply, decisions on how to adapt the ICT infrastructure in future must be based on a good overview, diverse research-based information and long-term environmental objectives.
What is actually known about the production and value chains of the information sector?
Digital services are not tied to the geographical location of the user. Digital services purchased by a Finnish consumer, for example, can be provided from anywhere in the world. This means that the energy consumed to provide those digital services and the resulting emissions are visible in the statistics of the country from which the service is provided.
The majority of consumer devices, such as smartphones and computers, are also produced outside of Finland. Of the metals and other raw materials needed for the devices, the majority are mined and processed outside the EU, so the environmental impacts also remain in the producer countries.
Finnish consumers purchase considerable amounts of digital services directly from abroad. Without a separate review of supply and value chains, it is currently difficult to make even rough estimates of the volume of services purchased from abroad.
Something can be deduced from the location of the data centres of international tech giants. Of these, only Google has a data centre in Finland, which means that, of the tech giants, only Google’s data centres’ energy consumption is recorded in Finland’s statistics. However, not all of the traffic of Google services used by Finns passes through the data centre in Finland.
In order to be able to estimate the share of Finns’ digital consumption and related environmental impacts outsourced outside the borders of Finland, more information on and insight into the value and supply chains of the ICT sector is needed. Looking merely at country- and company-level statistics, it is not possible to estimate the energy consumption, carbon neutrality or other resource use of the ICT sector.
Will there be enough valuable natural resources when the number of devices increases?
The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in Finnish consumers purchasing more electronics. The hardware needed for remote work has been particularly popular, but sales of new consumer electronics devices have also increased.
When new electronics are bought, more waste electronic equipment is produced. Waste electronic equipment is the fastest-growing waste fraction in the world, with its volume increasing annually by 7 per cent. The amount of waste electronic equipment produced in the world last year is equivalent to the amount of material needed to build five thousand Eiffel Towers (54 Mt, or 54 million tonnes). In the future, the volume of waste will only increase.
Increasing consumers’ awareness of the appropriate recycling of equipment and prolonging the life cycle of equipment is important, but without an overview, it will not be possible to identify the most effective ways to resolve the ICT sector’s challenges concerning the use of natural resources.
Currently, only 17 per cent of the waste electronic equipment produced in the world is appropriately recycled.
Statistics show that approximately 50 billion euros’ worth of gold, silver, copper and other valuable and reusable materials are wasted globally every year. In addition to the factors mentioned above, the reason is the enormous increase in the amount of equipment ending up as waste and the poor economic feasibility of the recovery of the tiny amounts of valuable raw materials they contain.
Because many of the technologies that will be important in the future, such as electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels and wind power plants, compete for the same valuable metals, it is absolutely essential to find ways to recover the raw materials of decommissioned products and use them for making new products. Solutions are also needed for lengthening the life cycle of equipment.
Understanding the material flows in electronic equipment and solving the related challenges requires a better overview of the use of natural resources in the ICT sector.
According to an estimate by the International Resource Panel, the sourcing and processing of natural resources causes approximately a half of global greenhouse gas emissions and 90 per cent of biodiversity loss.
Only about 9 per cent of recovered materials remain in circulation, and the majority of materials are disposed of after brief use.
The circular economy must be holistically incorporated into all material use in the ICT sector, and its principles must pervade every stage of the product life cycle – from the choice of materials to ecological design and from repairability to recycling.
Can we assess the carbon handprint and carbon footprint of ICT?
The climate impacts of the ICT sector are often described by way of carbon handprint and carbon footprint. The carbon footprint refers to the carbon dioxide emissions caused by human activity. The carbon handprint, on the other hand, refers to the positive climate impact that using a product or service has.
Carbon footprints can be calculated for an individual product, such as a smartphone, or for a service, such as a one-hour online video. The calculation of the carbon footprint of products and services includes all of the phases of the life cycle. Therefore, calculating the carbon footprint of digital services should include the consumption of terminal devices, data transfer and the processing of data.
The ICT sector likes to talk about carbon handprints and how the sector makes it possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors. According to some estimates, the benefits facilitated by the ICT sector in other sectors are significantly greater than the ICT sector’s own carbon footprint. Carbon handprint calculations are based on the carbon footprint.
According to Timo Seppälä, Chief Research Scientist at the Research Institute for the Finnish Economy (ETLA), the positive impacts of technology are exaggerated, especially in the digital sector.
As indicated by the interim and final reports of the working group on a climate and environment strategy for the ICT sector, assessing, comparing and monitoring the development of the climate and environmental impacts of the industry is challenging because the information needed for the assessment is not currently available.
For the same reason, calculating the carbon footprint and handprint is at the least challenging in light of the information available at present. Indicative estimates can be made, but in this case, it would be necessary to also consider the uncertainties, assumptions and limitations associated with the calculations.
It is obvious that not all digital solutions provide environmental benefits. Consumers currently account for 83 per cent of global internet traffic. Downloading and uploading videos accounts for 78 per cent of global internet traffic. Video traffic includes the use of YouTube and other video services, videos watched on social media and streaming services such as Netflix and Yle Areena, among others.
Consumer video traffic is increasing: the number of users is on the rise, screen time is increasing and increasingly high-quality video is watched on devices. The share of online gaming of network traffic is also increasing.
With a large share of the growth in internet traffic explained by increasing video consumption by consumers, it seems obvious that more attention should also be paid to the carbon footprint alongside the carbon handprint of ICT services.
In order for decision-makers, businesses and consumers to be able to make the right decisions about digital development from the point of view of the future and environment, the industry will need to be able to provide more up-to-date, open and comprehensive environmental data.
Will there be enough clean electricity?
ICT firms have invested in energy efficiency and succeeded in reducing their emissions. However, the development is at risk of going to waste if use increases, the quality of transmitted video improves even further and software becomes increasingly complex and demanding.
The ICT sector is currently a major user and buyer of renewable and green electricity. This is naturally a good thing, but from the point of view of the global environmental crisis, the essential thing is not which sector uses renewable electricity the most but that all electricity used in the world is produced from renewable sources in the near future.
The more electricity consumption increases globally, the more challenging it is to produce all the required electricity without emissions.
There are high expectations for the digital sector in the migration to a circular economy and the subsequent reduction of emissions. However, the big picture is a lot more complicated than the industry operators may lead us to believe, and therefore the acquisition of much more information is absolutely vital.