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Sustainability and Digitalization: Inextricably Linked?

Vera Weidmann about the connection between sustainability and digitalization

Digital technologies are touted as a big chance for the future, not least in enabling sustainable business development. But those who see digital technologies as a ‘Hail Mary’ for sustainability disregard the fact that digitalization, particularly at its current speed of growth, comes at a significant environmental cost. Can the gap between sustainability and pressure for innovation in an age conditioned by climate change be bridged?

Digital technologies require a substantial amount of energy. Particularly cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) tech contributes to increased CO2 emissions. But while consumer demand for sustainable and climate friendly products rises, it is increasingly impossible to imagine private or professional life without the benefits provided by smartphones or seamless internet access. Last year, Amazon employees persistently made headlines by protesting their employer’s environmental policies. Amazon’s reaction? Ban all unapproved communication regarding company politics.  

Corporations and governments find themselves facing an ever more complex task when it comes to ensuring digital innovation and pushing forward in the ‘energy transition’. Their role is complicated further by perhaps unreasonable demands: more of everything, please, but without social and economic costs.

The European Commission’s ambitious ‘Green Deal’ shows they too have realized that digitalization must become sustainable. Europe is supposed to be the first continent to reach climate-neutrality by 2050. In this endeavor, the Commission lays particular emphasis on the risks and opportunities of digital technologies. The German Ministry of the Environment also, to great surprise, published a comprehensive energy political digital agenda this week. The diversity and omnipresence of digital technologies also means that increasing amounts of material resources will be replaced by energy in the future.  

Data Centers: Electricity-Guzzlers Under Watch

Though it may not be clear to the average consumer, the use of digital technologies in daily life leads directly to exhausted capacities in data centers.  Nearly 13,2 billion Kilowatt hours of electricity were used in 2017 alone by around 53.000 data centers in Germany – Berlin, with a population of 3,712 million, consumed 13,5 billion Kilowatt hours in the same year. The Commission assumes that the information- and communications sectors account for 5% and 9% of worldwide electricity consumption and for more than 2% of all emissions.

Given this burden on energy consumption, the Commission has demanded that Data Centers and Telecommunications source more energy from renewable sources, and that they become carbon neutral by 2030. Although the Commission’s demand may still lack detail, it does show that renewable energy will play an increasing role in the future of the digital economy.  

The German Ministry of the Environment has made a similar demand: the energy efficiency of data infrastructure and digital electronic devices should be monitored, in order to establish binding minimum efficiency requirements. The well-known ‘Blue Angel’ certification system for instance introduced relevant award criteria for sustainable software design at the beginning of this year. This means that high standards in Data Centers and in energy efficient software can now be identified by the ‘Blue Angel’ label.

Climate and Environmental Protection: Impossible without Digital Technologies

Digital tech is clearly not just a crucial building block of the media and entertainment industries. Without them, it will also be increasingly impossible to ensure viable climate and environmental protection. AI for instance can help simulate potential environmental impacts and contribute to determining appropriate countermeasures, while SmartHome devices assist consumers and businesses in limiting energy consumption. The European Commission is also introducing a “GreenData4All” initiative and a “Planet Earth Project” in order to, by 2021, create a ‘digital twin’ for planet Earth. The Commission aims to better test new technologies and the consequences of climate change by way of this ‘digital twin’.

But especially data intensive applications such as AI, WIFI run SmartHome systems, and much anticipated full coverage 5G cellular networks consume huge amounts of energy. Sustainability researcher Prof. Dr. Tilman Santarius notes the lack of reliable studies about the ecological consequences of digitalization. It is common for the savings potential alone to be considered within the context of sustainability, without thinking about the additional burden on energy consumption created by relevant necessary digital technologies.

How decisive Minister Schulze will be opposite other departments and ministries regarding the application of her digital agenda remains to be seen. In any case, the Commission’s planned regulations are set to massively affect the digital economy. As such, businesses which rely on considerable digital resources are advised to develop a sustainable energy and sustainability strategy as far in advance as possible. Only businesses that keep both trends in mind will be able to survive into the future.


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