eWeek highlights digitalization’s growing environmental footprint

The digital transformation the world has seen is causing raw material depletion, an increase in water and energy use, and more pollution and waste, the speakers said.

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As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development eWeek 2023 convened last week, the conference highlighted digitalization’s environmental costs on the planet. The digital transformation the world has seen is causing raw material depletion, an increase in water and energy use, and more pollution and waste, the speakers said.

From online activities like streaming videos and downloading files to data centers and cloud services, the increase in online activities since 2010 generated an estimated 1 percent of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

“We are at a crucial juncture, where the path we choose in digitalization will significantly impact our environment and, ultimately, the future of our planet,” Torbjorn Fredriksson, head of UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy branch, said.

Digital devices, data centers and ICT networks account for 6 percent to 12 percent of global energy use, according to the International Panel on Climate Change.

“The ‘cloud’ has a very real impact on the ground,” Gerry McGovern, World Wide Waste author, said.

As people shopping online in 2021 was up 68 percent from 2017, according to the Global Findex database, the environmental costs from the estimated 2.3 billion shoppers worldwide include an uptick in waste from packaging and GHG emissions from deliveries and returns.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, from new digital devices was reportedly up 21 percent from 2014 to 2019 and reached 53.6 million metric tons mostly in developed countries, according to the Global E-waste Monitor. With only 17 percent of the e-waste properly recycled, researchers said e-waste is predicted to double by 2050.

“We must consider the digital and environmental transitions together,” Fredriksson said.

Some steps the speakers at eWeek outlined for policymakers include:

  • Enhancing data collection and transparency of ICT companies’ energy use to better inform analysis and policy making.
  • Implementing policies to improve energy efficiency in data transmission networks, including device energy efficiency standards.

The speakers’ recommended actions for companies include:

  • Offering customers tools to measure, report and reduce GHG emissions from their cloud services.
  • Designing devices using sustainable materials, promoting longer product lifespans and supporting the “right to repair” by providing third-party access to spare parts and repair information.
  • Using eco-friendly or reusable packaging materials and automated packaging systems to adjust box sizes to the contents.
  • Improving supply chains and delivery logistics and promoting circularity.

“Embracing these and other related practices will not only mitigate the environmental impact of digitalization, but also set a precedent for future technological developments,” Fredriksson said.

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