Is that green technology?

Representing civil society, we made a five-minute statement at the event “Digital technologies in the green transition: Friend or foe?” as one of the ministerial sessions of the OECD Digital Economy Ministerial Meeting held in Gran Canaria, Spain. You can read it here:

Illegal Gold Mine Encroaches into Protected Rainforest

First, the digital economy and its environmental impact is a growing topic of importance for civil society grouped in CSISAC (Civil Society Information Society Advisory Council). And we're delighted to share some insights here.

We want to start framing the conversation by saying that, without any doubt, digital technology is playing an essential role in the way humanity is mitigating the climate crisis. Without going any further, satellites, sensors, drones, big data, and artificial intelligence are fundamental tools, precisely, to understand the climate and ecological crisis we are experiencing.

However, not any digitization is desirable per se for climate and the environment. And we can see this clearly from the evidence gathered in the latest report on climate mitigation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In that document, we can conclude that there are two urgent challenges that digitization is facing today regarding its climate and environmetal impact:

Digitalization's direct and indirect harmful effects on greenhouse gas emissions. Direct effects refer to the increased energy demand because of the use of digital devices and infrastructures and their associated carbon emissions. Let me give you a couple of very concrete examples: The XBOX gaming console has the most significant carbon footprint of any Microsoft device due to the electricity people use while playing video games. Moreover, some countries are starting to apply different levels of moratoriums for new permits for hyperscale data centres because of their energy impact.

But also indirect effects are very relevant (scope three emissions). For example, the digital economy, AI, the internet of things, and video games, among many others -and I'm citing the latest IPCC report here- can lead to many new products and applications that are likely to be efficient in their own right but can also lead to unintended changes or absolute increases in product demand and its consequential uprise of carbon emissions (what we call digital rebound effect). For example, the ITU has also acknowledged that the rebound effect is expected to remain high, and energy policies may need to consider potential losses in energy saving due to this effect.

By all this, I mean that we have a very complex problem of energy use, which will probably be impossible to solve if we only rely on technological innovation for energy efficiency. 

We also want to acknowledge another challenge, especially important for the majority of the world: stop thinking that digital technology is green only if it is energy-efficient. There are other socio-environmental effects of technological infrastructure that will be key in the development of the tech industry in the coming years. Therefore, we need to take urgent action on the following:

So, you can have a cellphone with energy efficiency in your hands but containing minerals illegally extracted from the indigenous Brazilian Amazon.

Is that green technology?

We need to think beyond this, which is today my invitation to all stakeholders.