When we think of emerging technology and sustainability, the images that come to mind usually include futuristic cities, made clean, green and perfectly efficient through the magic of algorithms and digital services. But this utopian vision of a fully connected future comes at a potentially dystopian environmental cost.
Many of our daily activities damage the environment. Thirty minutes of video streaming emits between 28 and 57g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and binging on a 10-hour series could use the same energy as charging a smartphone 145 times. A group video conference on Zoom creates 4.5g of CO2e for each participant in an hour-long call, so a company of fifty employees each participating in two hours of video calls every working day creates as many emissions as the burning of 50kg of coal each year.
In 2018, the internet used between five and nine per cent of global energy generated - more than global aviation. Ten years from now, it could account for as much as 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon and energy provision aren’t the only issues at play. With the emergence of smart cities and a 5G-enabled Internet of Things, we are adding billions of low-cost new devices and sensors to our lives and built environments, embedding increasingly sophisticated electronics into our roads, buildings and appliances. How can we be sure that the benefits they deliver aren’t outweighed by their own environmental footprint - from the resources and servicing they require to the waste they produce?
Of course, thinking about the link between sustainability and technology isn’t new. The European Union recently set itself the goal of recovering from the pandemic in a way that supports both its green and digital ambitions. For policymakers across the continent, managing this so-called ‘twin transition’ is set to become one of the defining challenges of the next decade. The UK, as an R&D powerhouse with the desire to become a zero-emission economy, should take notice. The twin transition should be embraced as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to demonstrate our leadership and ability to innovate. It is only through a more conscious approach to connectivity that we will succeed in reconciling our green and digital aims.
We have identified four principles that will help us get a handle on the environmental impact of the digital economy, and could make Europe the global standard-bearer for sustainable and ethical internet technology:
To illustrate how these principles can apply to very different contexts, it is useful to take a look at the lifecycle of an internet device, from beginning to end to beginning:
The internet is made up of physical infrastructure, from our smartphones, laptops, wearables and voice assistants to the core networks and cabling that connect our homes. Producing these tools requires a staggering variety of materials, many of which are extracted from the ground in less developed countries under conditions that threaten both local communities and the environment. Smartphones, for example, can contain upwards to 62 different elements, with the materials in each iPhone requiring the mining of more than 34kg of raw ores. Not only is the amount of energy required in these processes significant - they often involve the use of poisonous chemicals. We urgently need new and sustainable sources for the most difficult to source materials, and promising research shows we could extract many of these from recycled electronics. We can also reduce the global impact of mining by tightening up socio-environmental regulations and investigating mining opportunities within Europe.
Once the metals, minerals and other materials that form the basis of our internet hardware are extracted, they are processed and shaped into components in several stages by a complex web of companies located across the world. An iPhone, for example, contains parts from over 200 suppliers. These supply chains are notoriously opaque. Manufacturers often don’t know exactly where a part or its materials have originated, nor do they know how sustainable their production processes are. By the time a device reaches a shop or online store, up to 95 per cent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions have already been created. We cannot meaningfully tackle the environmental footprint of these devices unless we have common European standards for supply chain transparency and mandatory reporting requirements that bind upstream and downstream companies looking to sell into European markets.
As soon as our devices arrive in store, they fly off the shelves at astonishing rates - 200 million smartphones are sold each year in Europe alone. We replace our smartphones roughly every two years, often before they are broken, despite the opportunity to save £100 per year by keeping an old device running. Three quarters of Europeans are willing to spend more on products and services if they are environmentally friendly. We need to educate and empower consumers so they can choose devices that last longer and are easier to repair and upgrade. That starts with giving them clear and visible information about the environmental impact of their devices at the point of purchase. Local governments, public sector organisations and infrastructure providers also spend significant sums on connected devices and internet hardware. If we channel their purchasing power through green procurement rules, sustainability assessments and better guidance, we can make a real difference and create markets for manufacturers that design for sustainability and longevity.
All of our clicks, calls and content are sent buzzing through the internet’s physical infrastructure, made up of wireless base stations, cables, switches and servers. The data we send and receive travels through data centres, large warehouses full of servers that need huge amounts of energy to power and cool them. Our data consumption is increasing quickly, and even today these systems are powered in large part by fossil fuels because they are cheaper or more readily available. Data centres across the globe used around 416 TWh per year, or about 3 per cent of global electricity supply in 2019, which is nearly 40 per cent more than the consumption of the entire United Kingdom.
According to some estimates, a single email creates around 4g of carbon dioxide. Unaware of the impact of our actions, we send roughly 300 billion emails per day, creating 1.2 million tonnes of emissions every twenty-four hours. That, quite literally, makes spam and marketing emails litter. We could make it easier for consumers to switch from services that still rely on fossil fuels and nudge tech or data companies into adopting greener energy sources and cutting back on unnecessary data-hoarding as per the GDPR’s data minimisation principle. Working with industry, we should develop standards to demonstrate and improve the energy efficiency of websites, software and services. Major platforms could lower the resolution of video content, remove auto-play functions or give users the option to listen to audio without video. Search engines and online stores could do more to identify and promote green results.
Distributed services such as the blockchain also contribute significantly to carbon emissions, with each Bitcoin transaction creating a staggering 287kg of CO2 is emitted for each single Bitcoin transaction, equivalent to around 800,000 VISA card transactions. In Iceland, Bitcoin mining is projected to soon use more energy than the country’s residents. We need to get ahead of these technologies so we can contribute to more environmentally friendly designs.
Anyone hoping to extend the life of their internet device when it breaks will come up against some serious hurdles. Repair manuals and spare parts are rarely made available to end users, and manufacturers often threaten tinkerers with draconian warranty conditions. This makes repair expensive and pushes us towards buying a new device. The fragility of modern device designs, with their edge-to-edge glass screens, adds to this trend. Our devices should and could last longer. They ought to receive software updates for longer, and be upgradeable. Modular designs such as the Fairphone have shown that this is possible. We can educate consumers about the repairability of their devices at the point of purchase, and ensure the long-term availability and accessibility of repair manuals, tools and parts to make fixing devices a viable alternative again. We also need legislation to give users the Right to Repair their devices and encourage manufacturers to design products that can have their lives extended.
When our internet devices break or become too slow to run the latest apps, we usually replace them. But that’s not the end of the story. The designs of our devices make them incredibly difficult to recycle, with minuscule parts soldered and glued into place. As in the early stages of a device’s lifecycle, we again rely on less developed countries to do our dirty work: 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented goods are exported from the EU each year, and in the UK as much as 80 per cent of electronic waste recycling is shipped to emerging and developing countries. Working in dire conditions, low-paid workers will disassemble the device for its valuable components, but many parts will be lost, and those that can be reused will be subjected to acid and chemical treatments that are prone to leaking into the environment. We need a Europe-wide takeback scheme and financial incentives for manufacturers to make devices easier to recycle when they are no longer repairable.
We've launched a new report that explores the various effects the internet has on the environment. Our report sets out a series of recommendations that policymakers, businesses and consumers should consider to grasp the opportunities presented by the green and digital twin transition, which could make Europe a leader in sustainable internet technologies. This report is part of our work leading NGI Forward, the strategy and policy arm of the European Commission’s flagship Next Generation Internet initiative, which seeks to build a more democratic, inclusive, resilient, sustainable and trustworthy internet by 2030. We hope that it sparks a new conversation about a common European approach to the internet that will support the twin green and digital transitions necessary to recovery from the pandemic. There is a huge amount that we can do to create positive change in this area but we must act now.