Digital pollution: Invisible but not painless

The carbon footprint of the email is more than the consumption of a light bulb burning for several hours, much more than the aerial of the digital sector.

“Today, we want to do these things to help save the planet, and sometimes we don’t need to have the right reflexes. We’re going to turn off the light thinking we’ve made great energy savings, we’re going to send a few funny emails to friends with attachments, and spend a lot more energy, ”the new minister announced. Energy change on May 24. This observation highlights the almost invisible, yet evolving, environmental trail caused by digital technology, according to several studies.1 The digital sector emits almost 4% of the world’s greenhouse gases (GHG), which is slightly higher than the aviation sector’s emissions (in France, the sector was through 2% GHG emissions in 2019)! In 2040 it will be 7%. The digital path is therefore not currently compatible with the 2 C் C path established by the Paris Agreement.

Digital GHG emissions at the core environment, in tCO2eq, by subgroup type

Source: Information Report (2019-2020). Senate.

The transition to a carbon-free economy and operations cannot ignore this digital pollution, which has identified a number of hurdles:

  • Material pollution is directly related to the use (extraction, then modification) of resources to produce infrastructure (such as data centers) and media (smartphones, computers, etc.).
  • The use of digital technology requires electricity, the main source of which is fossil fuels around the world, which emits a lot of GHG.
  • Other environmental factors may be incorporated into the calculation of the digital impact, ie the consumption of ajiotic or water resources2.

One thing that has been little discussed in public debate

While climate and environmental crises have prompted us to reduce GHG emissions in many sectors, digital technology has become a source of non-sensitive pollution during use, which has not yet been much discussed in public debate. However, its material footprint is growing. According to the forecast3By 2022, there will be approximately 4.8 billion Internet users (60% of the world’s population) and 28.5 billion connected objects (compared to 18 billion in 2017). Worldwide, the industry’s total waste is 57 million tons, of which less than 20% is recycled, valued at $ 62.5 billion.

However, there are methods to make the field of this activity more climate-moral.

The first step towards digital sobriety revolves around the size and life cycle of digital devices: their production is a key source of environmental impact.

There are solutions to this problem by gradually implementing the principles of the eco-economy such as environmental design, repair, recycling or rearrangement of equipment. Some companies like Orange follow this logic. In particular, the group has developed its “RE” project, which aims to raise public awareness of the environmental impact of mobile phones and to strengthen the approach to collecting and reusing mobile phones. A similar initiative is proposed by the German group Deutsche Telekom.

Towards digital sobriety: control of applications.

Study of The Shift Project4 For example, online video teaches us that5 It generates nearly 60% of global data flows and more than 300 million tons of CO2 per year. While the environmental crisis will lead to better management of land resources in line with planetary boundaries, it is essential to allocate digital resources in a fair manner according to applications. Although the methodology for determining the environmental impact of digital activity is incomplete at this stage, it is strongly associated with a country’s energy composition. Globally, the latter is mainly derived from fossil fuels6. A problem already anticipated by some players, such as Bouygues and its “source” package, is the conversion of every gigabyte into unspent euros, which finances the user’s wishes. Capgemini has extended its offer to target professionals through “sustainable information technology”.

Finally, the law begins to worry about this matter.

In France, for example, REEN legislation aims to improve all digital players, from manufacturers to consumers. Most recently, Europe voted in favor of a universal charger for electronic devices by mid-2024, promising to save 11,000 tons of waste each year.

In an increasingly digitalized and energy-intensive world, digital pollution is a growing climate threat, with a proliferation of applications and connected products. If the sector has solutions toward carbon emissions (such as the circle economy, resource management, user awareness, etc.), they should be monitored by the regulator. As investors, we seek to identify companies that provide solutions that help control the industry’s GHG emissions that are invisible but painless.

5 Online video includes VoD, pornography, “tubes” and videos hosted on social networks.
6 By 2020, fossil fuels accounted for 83.1% of global energy consumption. Renewable energy, including hydropower, contributes 12.6% and nuclear energy 4.3%.

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