Climate change

Digital technology, a societal choice compatible with an ecological transition?

Posted on May 2, 2023


Johann Recordon

Chargé de projet CCD, UNIL

Digital technology, a societal choice compatible with an ecological transition?

Over the past five years, scientific studies and political inquiries have multiplied on the environmental and social impacts of digital technology. In the face of the urgency to return within planetary boundaries, the Competence Center in Sustainability (CCD) of the University of Lausanne (UNIL) has published the results of its compilation of the literature on the subject, proposing avenues to appreciate the stakes related to the use of digital tools in societal choices. Here is a summary of the three chosen areas of focus

(see details and sources in the full text, available here in French).

First, we found that digital technology is estimated to account for 2-4% of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions in 2021, with a growth rate of 6-9% per year, which could lead to a doubling of its impact by 2030. Considering the need to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2030 and 95% by 2050, in order to achieve carbon neutrality and comply with the Paris Agreement, the current and anticipated state of digital technology at the global level appears to be unsustainable. At the European level, thanks to the well-documented case of France, we can see that user terminals (computers, telephones, TVs) are the source of 79% to 87% of (direct and indirect) GHG emissions and waste production. In a digital sobriety approach, it is therefore a drastic reduction of the demand for new terminals that is required, as well as limiting the over-availability and incentives to purchase new products, such as connected objects (IoT).

Second, we have classified the theoretical benefits of digital technology according to the Avoid-Shift-Improve (ASI) model, leading to the conclusion that a fundamental questioning of perceived needs and demand (Avoid) seems to be necessary within a consumer society. In the case study we considered, we find that telecommuting would save 60-90% of GHG emissions related to commuting by car, but that public and active transportation remain the least impacting when the office-home distance is less than 30 km (trolleybus) or 100 km (train), round trip.

Third, we expanded the scope of the case study analysis and identified at least nine mechanisms that induce a rebound effect, classified according to four types (microeconomic: direct effect and indirect effect, macroeconomic: market effect and growth effect). In addition, based on the Donut model, we identified at least four types of undesirable effects generated by digital technology (on physical and mental health, working conditions, social equity, biodiversity).

Considering these elements, we conclude that it appears essential to conduct an extensive and rigorous examination of the deleterious effects that could be generated by the use of digital technology and, even more so, by future choices of deployment of technologies related to it. Proposals for digital sobriety at the societal level thus seem to be the most fruitful axis of reflection for the future. Among these, it is possible to mention at least four, based on the existing literature:

· The drastic reduction of demand for new terminals, for example by extending their life span and by choosing equipment that is adequate in size and power;

· Limiting the over-availability and the incentives to buy new products, such as connected objects (IoT);

· Limiting the explosion of data traffic, such as avoiding streaming in 4K-8K, as well as reducing screen time and multitasking (e.g., when a person checks a social network on their smartphone, while watching TV);

· Remaining particularly cautious when considering digital tools at the societal level, taking into account their multiple rebound mechanisms.

The full text in French, with all figures and sources, can be found on the CCD webpage.


About the author:

Johann Recordon holds a Master's degree in sustainability foundations and practices from the University of Lausanne (UNIL), as well as a Bachelor's degree from the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL). He joined the Competence Center for Sustainability (CCD) in 2020 and is currently a project manager in the Research Department. Previously, Johann worked for four years in the organization of conferences and workshops on topics related to technological innovation, between Geneva, San Francisco, Bangalore and Shanghai. His areas of interest include relational ontologies, climate plans, digital and entrepreneurship.

Source of the article: Johann Recordon, Digital technology, a societal choice compatible with an ecological transition? Competence Center in Sustainability (CCD), 2023

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