Sustainable Technologies Getting the Digital Fix Right

Video store
Video stores are hardly used any more, nowadays films are streamed from the sofa at home. It's much more sustainable - isn't it? | Photo (detail): Jens Büttner © picture alliance/dpa

Is digital technology the Holy Grail, the solution to all our global environmental problems, or actually part of the problem? Green IT specialist Niklas Jordan weighs the pros and cons of digitisation.

By Niklas Jordan

“Don’t panic! Digitizing will solve the problem for us.” Suchlike reassurances are touted as a matter of course nowadays in many a social, political and business domain. But should we really pin our hopes on ever-increasing digitization or are we merely shirking our responsibility for thinking about our own actions?

The Status Quo

Recent months have once again shown us how lost we’d be without a decent digital infrastructure. Which leads more to actionism, however, than to a strategy for the future.
Many people believe that digitization is, by definition, sustainable. But that’s only partly true. We need merely look back twenty years to the days of video rental shops on every corner. We’d drive over to pick up a film and drive home, then back to the shop again afterwards to drop off the film and back home again. All that just for a nice evening of home cinema on the couch. Nowadays, thanks to Netflix, we’re not only saving the resources involved in manufacturing DVDs in the first place but also all that driving back and forth to the video shop. So it's a twofold win for the environment, isn’t it?
Well, digital solutions are only sustainable if they result in lower energy consumption and consequently lower emissions than are involved in the production and provision of these digital solutions. Because the servers of the streaming services on which the films are stored run on energy, and generating that energy gives off emissions. The servers of Netflix and the like are located all over the world so we can enjoy a ‘judder-free’ viewing experience of our series whenever we like. Nowadays, instead of watching one film a week, the way we did back in the days of video rental, we’re into “binge-watchin” now. As a result, we end up reversing the resource-saving effect we thought we’d achieved by eliminating all that driving back and forth to video shops, and now we’re actually consuming more energy instead – which is known in conservation and energy economics as the “rebound effect”.
As a result, a single provider, namely Netflix, now accounts for 15 per cent of total global data traffic.
I’m a classic nerd, which means I can get excited about pretty much any kind of technology. But we mustn’t make the mistake of digitizing everything just because it’s possible. It’s important to weigh up the social and above all environmental pros and cons. We need to make technology itself more sustainable and then use sustainable technologies to create more sustainability. The order is crucial here: there’s no point at all in using technology that promises sustainability but ultimately gives rise to more emissions.

How Can We Make Technology More Sustainable?

All digital technology, including websites and apps, requires energy to propel those bits and bytes whizzing up and down our information highways. All those ones and zeros are basically nothing but pulses of electric current. Electricity? Yep, and this electricity emits more or less greenhouse gases depending on how it’s generated.
Watching dozens of TikTok videos a day, making a FaceTime call or two, saving photos on the Cloud and watching a couple more videos on YouTube – all this is everyday digital life. For each individual user, it’s “just another video” or “just another photo”, but in the aggregate, our Internet behaviour has ginormous effects on the climate: nearly four per cent of all CO2 emissions, twice as much as the entire aviation industry, are now attributable to global data transmissions and their infrastructure.
I don’t want to put all the blame on consumers. The Internet is a complex system. Who really understands what a Google search has to do with greenhouse gases? The responsibility lies with website operators: Does every website really need to have a video running on it? Are the oversized images, elaborate design and multiple animations really necessary? 15 years ago, nobody would have constructed websites like that, if only because they’d have taken way too long to load. Our bandwidth at the time simply wouldn’t have allowed it. Now that everyone has an Internet connection with at least 50,000 Mbit/s, we don't care how big a website is: it’ll load in a fraction of a second. So we’ve lost any sense of high-volume data loads.
But technology isn’t just bits and bytes flowing through our wires as electric pulses. It always has a hardware component made of rare earth minerals and metals, for which whole swathes of land are dug up, and which are often mined by children in troubled regions. The French are currently trying to introduce a legal “right to reparability” so we don’t have to buy new hardware every time a little component malfunctions. This would be a first big step in the right direction.

How Can Digitization Help Us Live More Sustainably?

It goes without saying that technology can also help us live more sustainably, reduce emissions and thereby protect the climate. There are plenty of examples: In recent years, for instance, Barcelona has been doubling down on its efforts to reduce water and energy consumption. Public parks in the Catalonian capital are now fitted out with smart irrigation systems, whose sensors measure the moisture in the soil. The data thereby collected is analysed and, depending on the latest weather forecast, the system then decides whether or not to water the park. Smart systems of this kind have reduced the city’s water consumption by 25 per cent. Similarly, the streetlights are now equipped with motion detectors, so the streets are only lit up when they’re actually being used. This measure has brought energy savings of 30 per cent, which is a boon not only to the municipal coffers, but also to insects, birds and plants, which are happy about having less light pollution to cope with. In addition, over 700 WLAN hotspots are now available for residents and tourists in Barcelona. Why is this sustainable? Because using WLAN is significantly more energy-efficient than using regular mobile telephone service.
There are plenty of other examples of ways in which technology can make our everyday lives more sustainable, ranging from apps that continuously measure and show us ways of minimizing our carbon footprint to whole fleets of seed-shooting drones that can plant trees autonomously, even in the most inaccessible spots.

So What Should We Do Now?

To ensure that increasing digitization helps us rather than exacerbating the climate catastrophe, it’s crucial to rethink how we use technology. We’ve got to find ways to reduce the mining of raw materials needed to build our connected world. Our old devices need to be repairable or at least fully recyclable. Digital apps need to be more energy-efficient. Above all, however, we’ve got to reduce our consumption. Because even if prophecies of doom are unpopular, there’s simply no alternative to a sustainable way of life. We shouldn't be buying a new smartphone every two years or binge-watching three seasons of our favourite series in a single weekend. And we shouldn't add data-intensive features to our websites merely because we can. Changing our behaviour is the only way to achieve our climate goals and live a sustainable life on this planet.