Digital technology and the environment: striking the right balance

24 October 2018ContactNicolas Laruelle

Although digital technologies provide innovative responses to environmental challenges, they continue to place huge pressure on resources and on the environment. The challenge is how to reduce the negative impact of digital technologies and increase their positive effects on the environment.

In the 1980s, the initial promise of digital technology was widely held to reside in its environmental benefit: it was claimed that it would reduce consumption of raw materials, particularly in the move to a paperless environment, while economising energy by avoiding unnecessary travel. But instead, travelling has continued to increase as better long-distance communications simply increased the need for meeting in person. Until very recently, paper consumption rose, as the ease with which documents could be exchanged and handled boosted the number of paper printouts. Digital technology, which was thought to be certain to resolve environmental issues, became a potential environmental problem in its own right.

The emergence of “green it”

Since the turn of the 21st century, the pressures of digital technology on the environment and other resources have led gradually to greater awareness of the issues on the part of various players with a variety of concerns, from IT managers in large corporate groups, keen to improve their environmental reporting or simply to reduce their energy bills, to non-governmental organisations, worried about the consequences of the extraction of rare materials and the exporting of waste electronic equipment to developing countries, not to mention local people subjected to radiation from telecommunications masts or to the noise of data centres… Awareness became more structured in the first decade of the years 2000, notably on the initiative of public and private networks such as the CNRS Eco Info grouping or the GreenIT. fr galaxy (see box), who applied to IT products and services the more comprehensive approach suggested in 2002 by standard ISO 14062 on the eco-design of products and services. To assess the environmental impact of a given service (such as ordering train tickets or optimising heating systems), this approach takes into consideration not only all the equipment mobilised (data centres, fixed or mobile terminals, sensors, etc.), but also the entire life cycle of each of these items of equipment involved in design, manufacturing, distribution, service life, decommissioning etc. Finally, it takes into consideration the potential environmental impacts of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, the depletion of fossil fuel resources and over-consumption of water. This more comprehensive approach has enabled the development of shared diagnostics of the main negative effects of digital technology on the environment and the identification of the major “green Information Technologies” levers available to green digital products and services. First lever: ensure a longer service life for IT devices, particularly terminals such as computers and mobile phones, because most greenhouse gases are emitted, and water consumed, at the time of the initial production or at the end-of-life disposal of equipment, i.e. not while the devices are operational. This is a major indicator of the need for retrofit or reconditioning of products to extend their service life in preference to recycling. For example, The IT department of Pôle Emploi, the French Employment Agency, based in Montreuil (the Seine-Saint-Denis county), reconditions 70% of its computers using labour supplied by voluntary organisations and job-seekers in the “solidarity economy.” The ReCommerce company in Gentilly (the Val-de-Marne county) is a dominant player in the European mobile phone reconditioning market. Second lever: revamp the design of software and on-line services to combat “overweight” digital technologies whose unnecessarily complex features are a factor of excessive energy consumption and built-in obsolescence. The average number of bytes required to carry a webpage has tripled in the last 10 years and the size of the RAM memory required to run a world-famous word processor has increased one hundredfold in the last 20 years. Thus, the SoLocal group (Pages Jaunes, Mappy, etc.), based in Boulogne-Billancourt (the Hauts-de-Seine county), has pioneered the eco-design of online services for the immediate benefit of its customers, who appreciate the speed at which its web pages are displayed. Third and last lever: remember the little things you do on a daily basis. Although media coverage has frequently over-played the importance of each individual energy-saving gesture (“Turn off your computer at night to save the planet”), the cumulative effects of such actions are potentially significant, including the use of cloud computing limited to the strictly necessary, efforts not to watch TV on internet and to reduce reliance on paper printouts.

From “green it” to “green by it”

The greening of digital technologies has gone hand-in-hand with a new will to mobilise technologies that support the environment, sometimes known as “green by IT”. It involves rationalising the management of major urban services, such as energy, by the introduction not only of smart grids but of smart networks for the delivery of services such as water, food and waste disposal. Equally important is the way buildings are occupied, involving the sharing of offices, meeting rooms and parking areas. Assistance can be made available in the fields of risk management, the prevention of nuisance and pollution, along with the new technology that will enhance the mobility of both persons and goods. In a large metropolitan area such as the Paris Region, where the regional scale has turned out to be one of the most relevant in almost all aspects of environment protection, the adoption of digitally enabled solutions is often of critical importance to generating more synergies between territorial areas where interdependency is clearly obvious. For example, online platforms can be built, such as “La Ruche Qui Dit Oui”, which put farmers in the rural outskirts of Paris in touch with consumers in the heart of the agglomeration to organise bulk deliveries that reduce the number of trips to be made. Another example is complex forecasting systems, such as the one conceived in the Imprex European project at the Irstea Centre in Antony (the Hauts-de-Seine county), which enhances coordination between local areas, both upstream and downstream, for the purpose of preventing and managing the risks of flooding. In all areas relating to the environment, digital technologies help, first and foremost, to enhance knowledge by using interconnected sensors, enabling remote detection by drone or satellite and collaborative mapping, as well as the management of data on a more massive scale than before. Next, they increase the analytical, forecasting and simulation capabilities that contribute to sound decision-making: thus, the French Bull Sequana supercomputer currently being built at Clayes-sous-Bois (the Yvelines county) will, in 2020, become the most powerful and energy-efficient supercomputer of its kind in the world, enabling Météo-France to improve its simulations of future climate trends. Finally, digital technologies are new vectors of information and awareness-raising through the social networks, serious games and open data etc., while also mutualising resources through platforms for car-pooling, vehicle-sharing, etc. One of the major challenges facing the practise of “Green by IT”, as well as other aspects of the digital city, is how to ensure the interoperability of the technologies mobilised so as to bring about greater coherence and reduce redundancy. With this in mind, in 2016, the Arvalis research institute joined forces with other agricultural stakeholders to create a digital farm in Boigneville (the Essonne county). This experimental farm has made possible the joint testing of currently available digital technologies in real situations, the aims being more economical use of resources and reduced pressure on the environment, while also supporting farmers in a more reasoned approach to the transition to digital technologies. The widespread adoption of digital technologies to serve environmental protection must be well thought through. Given the real risk of encouraging the unnecessary proliferation of sensors and data, cool-headed assessment of new technologies is required with the right critical distance from the issues, in order to assess their true overall benefits for the environment and society.

The “galaxy”

The “galaxy” is made up of several organisations involved in alleviating the harmful effects of digital technologies on the environment and society. Among its very active members are: Frédéric Bordage, former IT developer and journalist, the founder and organiser since 2004 of the website, who has popularised this notion in France; the ‘responsible digital design’ Collective, which promotes reflection on the eco-design of digital services and which, in 2017, drafted a “White Paper” on this subject; the Green IT Club, which every year publishes its “Benchmark of Responsible Digital Technology” comparing the performances of players such as RTE (the French national grid), SNCF (French railways) or La Poste (the French postal service); and the association “Halte à l’obsolescence programmée” (Stop built-in obsolescence). These organisations, which include both public and private sector players – large groups and start-ups – provide forums for exchanges of views, help prioritise the challenges and propose methods, tools and indicators. They keep a close watch on the extent to which “greenwashing” contributes to failings in the IT community, and are involved in collective action at various levels by proposing legislation, running awareness-raising campaigns, etc. 

Nicolas Laruelle, urbanist, L'Institut Paris Region

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