Over 90% of the world’s available data is said to have been generated in the past two years alone. If generated and used in sustainable ways, this data can play a key role in enabling humanity to operate within the planetary boundaries and to thrive for generations to come.

Human development on Earth has reached an unsustainable climax. As the latest available science shows, four out of nine planetary boundaries have already been transgressed due to human activity. These nine large-scale processes have been identified to be critical for the stability of our planet, and transgressing their boundaries means that we are risking irreversible changes to the Earth System.

At the same time, a major digital revolution is underway. While it is often portrayed as an ever accelerating, forceful process, one should not forget that it is a development driven by humans. Homo digitalis has enabled the creation of the unprecedented amount of data now found at our fingertips. The key question is how to use this data in smart and sustainable ways to help us get back on track, steering humanity towards a safe trajectory of sustainable development.

Figure 1: Developed by a group of scientists around Johann Rockström, the planetary boundaries concept identifies the nine processes vital to the stability and resilience of the Earth System. Four out of nine planetary boundaries have already been transgressed: climate change, biosphere integrity, land-system change and biogeochemical flows. Source: Stockholm Resilience Center (1).

Digital change geared towards sustainable development

 In light of the challenges arising from a digitally transforming society, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) has drawn up a guiding system in the form of a charter for a sustainable digital age. In “Our Common Digital Future”, it defines principles and standards that are essential for navigating a digitalisation path in line with global sustainability goals (2). A central goal being defined is that:

The drawn up charter clearly integrates the planetary boundaries concept in its guiding goals and principles, demonstrating the need for digitalisation at the service of global sustainability goals. This principle is further expanded on by considering two specific aspects:

  • The potential of digitalisation should be used to advance the global sustainability agenda and to secure a thriving planet for generations to come. This means that solutions aided by digital technologies must be firmly integrated in societal decision-making processes.
  • Digital technologies and infrastructures themselves must be used in ways that observe the planetary guard rails. This means that the environmental, but also social impacts of these technologies must be taken into account.

Digital technologies at the service of sustainability

Digitalisation is often portrayed as an upheaving societal change that humans have to adapt to, when in fact, digitalisation is being shaped by humans. This especially applies to recognising the value of new digital technologies such as big data, IoT and AI and mainstreaming their use at all societal levels to support transformational change for sustainability.

Specifically, it is crucial that digitalisation be brought in line with the sustainable development goals defined in the Agenda 2030, the most comprehensive sustainability process worldwide, as well as with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Suitable frameworks need to be created at the political, corporate and societal levels:

  • The international political community needs to take a leading role in embedding the issue of digitalisation and sustainability in global policies. Global governance structures will determine whether we can move towards a green transformation of society or on the contrary, head towards ecological and societal disruption exacerbated by digital technologies. A common framework should be established, which sets guiding principles, goals and standards for national and local governance action with regard to digitally supported sustainability. In this process, it must be ensured that the prevention of risks linked to digital change, such as increased resource and energy consumption as well as environmental and climate damage, be adequately addressed.
  • With its contribution of crucial sustainability data, the private sector takes an important and supportive role. This has especially become evident over the past decade, in which the business world went through a change from a mere focus on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) to employing more systematic ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) approaches. As a result, more and more businesses are establishing monitoring and reporting standards, which provide insight into the sustainability performance and impacts of their corporate activities. This reflects how the value of sustainability data has become increasingly recognised over time, ever more allowing its potential to be unlocked. This development presents many opportunities for more informed societal decision-making and for developing better solutions with regard to critical global issues, such as environmental and climate protection.
  • Citizens must be engaged in both accessing and contributing data in order to leverage citizen action for sustainability. This entails investing in people’s digital literacy, fostering their skills to use digital tools and handle and interpret data. Citizen science projects, in which volunteers work with scientists to solve real-world problems, can support this process. As the German Science Barometer 2019, a representative survey of German citizens on science and research, reveals, almost every second citizen is interested in participating in a citizen science project (3).

Sustainable use of digital technologies

 Digital technologies are essential for social, economic and ecologically sustainable development. However, our growing use of digital technologies is linked to rising levels of energy and raw material consumption. The resulting ecological impacts have been continuously underestimated. This, one could say, is largely tied to the gradual miniaturisation of devices over time as well as the invisibility of related infrastructures, such as data centres.

Source: “Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety”, The Shift Project (4) & “Reducing emissions from aviation”, European Commission (5)

As we measure, generate, store and process larger quantities of data, the demand for data centers and network services increases. For every bit of data travelling the network from data center to end user, another five bits of data need to be transmitted within data centers. Data centers are estimated to use 200 TWh each year, which is more than the national energy consumption of some countries around the world (6).

Forming the backbone of today’s digitalisation, considerable efforts have to be invested in making data centers more energy-efficient. So far, increasing data loads have been countered by increased efficiencies of data center infrastructure and IT. Over the next five years, energy efficiency gains are predicted to keep overall energy demand of data centers in check (7). However, it is questionable whether this trend of efficiency improvements will continue or rather slow down.

While data centers have been identified to bear great potential for resource efficiency within the field of information and communication technologies, efficiency strategies, however, are not enough to keep within the ecological limits of the planet. Reasons include rebound effects and increases in consumption and production that cancel out efficiency gains. For this reason, complementary sustainability strategies, such as the use of renewable energies and waste heat recovery, must be pursued (for more information, visit our blog post on waste heat recovery in data centers).

Changing our digital consumption patterns

 Our daily lives and routines are defined by managing a constant influx of information, while information and communication technologies are constantly evolving. It is said that we process as much data in a day as our ancestors in the 15th century would have processed in their entire lifetimes (8). But while the social impacts of our daily digital routines, such as information overload, regularly enter public debate and questioning, little attention is payed to the environmental impacts.

The digital overconsumption trend is clearly linked to a strong increase in the energy footprint of information and communication technologies. According to The Shift Project, a French carbon transition think tank, the worldwide consumption of digital energy is increasing by around 9% per year. As a result, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the digital transition are set to increase from 2.5% in 2013 to 4% in 2020 (4).

Further, the production of digital technologies and equipment is linked to a big material footprint through requiring metals, which are oftentimes rare or critical. A smartphone alone requires the use of forty different metals. With the rapidly increasing production and consumption of digital equipment, electronic waste has become the fastest growing solid waste stream over the years. Due to current unsustainable design and production processes, only a small proportion of this equipment is designed for reuse. While 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated globally per year, only around 20% of e-waste is recycled through appropriate channels (9).

In light of the environmental footprint of digital technologies, it is of utmost importance that we as digital consumers take on responsibility by aligning our digital consumption habits with sufficiency strategies. This becomes especially apparent when considering that digital overconsumption is not a global phenomenon, but caused by the inflationary consumption habits in high-income countries. Simple steps we can take to change our digital behaviour include:

Source: NABU (10), Bitkom (11), The Shift Project (12) & OVO (13)

Our digital lifestyle is far from sustainable in its present form. As attention to the issue gains more momentum, we need to tap into new, mindful ways of digital thinking. General awareness around digital environmental impacts and the need to apply sufficiency thinking to our digital consumption patterns need to be rapidly increased amongst the general public in order to move towards a sustainable and resilient Digital Age.

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(1) Stockholm Resilience Center: https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

(2) German Advisory Council on Global Change: https://www.wbgu.de/fileadmin/user_upload/wbgu/publikationen/hauptgutachten/hg2019/pdf/WBGU_HGD2019_S.pdf

(3) Wissenschaft im Dialog: https://www.wissenschaft-im-dialog.de/en/our-projects/science-barometer/

(4) The Shift Project: https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf

(5) European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en

(6) Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y

(7) International Energy Agency: https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/DigitalizationandEnergy3.pdf

(8) Daniel Levitin: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/313653/the-organized-mind-by-daniel-j-levitin/9780147516312/

(9) The Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership: https://globalewaste.org/

(10) NABU: https://www.nabu.de/aktionenundprojekte/handysfuerdiehummel/

(11) Bitkom: https://www.bitkom.org/Presse/Presseinformation/124-Millionen-Alt-Handys-liegen-ungenutzt-herum.html

(12) The Shift Project: https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2019-02.pdf

(13) OVO: https://www.ovoenergy.com/ovo-newsroom/press-releases/2019/november/think-before-you-thank-if-every-brit-sent-one-less-thank-you-email-a-day-we-would-save-16433-tonnes-of-carbon-a-year-the-same-as-81152-flights-to-madrid.html