Digitization and the Environment: Opportunities, Risks and the Need for Action
Thanks to the radically changed living and working conditions in times of COVID-19 (Corona virus disease 2019), many people have become acutely grateful for the benefits of digitization, even while having to confront some challenges in the application of digital tools. The year 2020 is already being hailed as “the year of digitization”. But digitization has begun to change our lives and our society long before COVID-19.
This is a result of the implementation of new information and communication technologies (ICT) in virtually all areas of life. In this article, we report the results of a study on the impact of digitization on the environment, conducted by the Bern University of Applied Sciences on behalf of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). The aim of the study was to get an overview of the opportunities, risks and challenges arising in the course of digitization, and to show where there is need for action.
The impact of digitization on the environment
Considering climate change and global warming – and the associated negative consequences for people and the environment – it is crucial to question the impact of digitization on the environment. Without this knowledge we cannot expect to shape digitization in order to reach the environmental goals that Switzerland has set itself with the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development.
According to the literature, various trends can be observed when investigating the impact of digitization on the environment. First, computers and sensors are increasingly present in our society. Thanks to the use of ICT, more data can be collected, systems can be controlled more intelligently, new knowledge can be gained, and new types of services can be provided. On the downside, new technologies may be associated with high energy consumption. Second, the dematerialization of value-added processes and the shift to renewable energy sources have the potential to improve the ecological balance of many products and services. However, efficiency gains often result in increased demand, which in turn leads to a raise in raw material and energy consumption, emissions and more electronic waste. These feedback effects are known as “rebound effects”. And third, digitization has an accelerating effect on our economic system, which has been characterized for several decades by an excessive use of natural resources. As a result, the resource situation is becoming even more acute, and supra-regional or global ecosystems are in danger of “tipping over”.
In our empirical study, we have sought to answer the following two research questions:
- What are the opportunities, risks and challenges of digitization for the environment?
- Which need for action can be derived from this?
In order to obtain a comprehensive answer to the two research questions, a “mixed-methods” approach was chosen, using qualitative and quantitative methods. For the qualitative part, a total of 18 expert interviews were conducted between January and April 2019. The expert interviews were the prelude to an online survey that was carried out between September and October 2019. The survey was targeted at people dealing with digitization and/or environmental issues in their professional or civic/social life and was completed by a total of 801 individuals.
Rebound-effects must be counteracted
According to relevant studies, digitization, when considering rebound effects, has so far had a negative impact on the environment (see for example Sühlmann-Faul & Rammler 2018; Hilty & Bieser 2017; Lange & Santarius 2018). In our study we find that one the one hand, respondents do fear for the state of the environment – with over 80 percent viewing human-induced global warming, the excessive use of finite resources, the threat to biodiversity and environmental pollution from plastics as the biggest dangers to the environment. The fact that these problems have not yet been resolved is, according to the respondents, mainly due to our reluctance to give up the convenience of everyday life and to inappropriate framework conditions in the political, legal and economic spheres. Moreover, the respondents identify a lack in international cooperation, that would be needed to address the pressing environmental issues.
However, when it comes to judging the impact of digitization on the environment, most respondents are much more optimistic than the researchers cited in our study, with the majority believing that, all things considered, the benefits outweigh the negatives. Looking more closely at these results, we see that the most critical voices tend to come from scientists, who stress the impact of unwanted rebound effects such as they are discussed in the relevant literature.
The connections between resources, pollution and product’s lifespan
Despite a largely optimistic estimation of the overall impact of digitization on the environment, the respondents clearly identify the risks that digitization presents. The most important risks arise in conjunction with the production and the disposal of digital technology, and the increasing amounts of valuable resources that get used and destroyed in the process, as recycling of electronic waste is difficult. Respondents also see a danger in the amount of energy consumption linked to the use of digital technologies, and more generally, in the increased tendency to a “throwaway society”. On the positive side, respondents mostly stress the opportunities that digitization creates with regard to the decentralization of energy production, more efficient energy use, the saving of materials and a more efficient use of pollutants (made possible in agriculture using drones for example).
Digitization also has an impact on how the environment is being monitored. In this area, the respondents see the positive effects of digitization above all in terms of more efficient data collection and new possibilities of data processing. On the downside, data protection issues abound and some respondents fear the abuse of power by entities in possession of environmental data.
Accelerate the transition to a circular economy
When it comes to taking measures to prevent or counteract the environmental risks arising from digitization, respondents are very clear on the measures that need to be taken. About 90 percent of all respondents strongly suggest that actions be taken to promote products with a smaller ecological footprint and to create incentives to increase the lifespan of electronic products in order to minimize e-waste and to save valuable resources. Moreover, incentives to reduce overall environmentally harmful consumption should be established (thus promoting a more sufficient lifestyle, counteracting the above-mentioned tendency to a throwaway society). In order to create more value with fewer resources, digital technologies to increase efficiency should be promoted, notably in the field of energy efficiency. Furthermore, the sharing economy should be promoted and investments in the digital infrastructure should be made to promote environmentally friendly alternatives (e.g. video conferencing instead of travelling to in-person meetings). And last but not least, the respondents call for more transparency, especially when it comes to the traceability of the components and the origins of electronic products.
To minimize the risks in the area of environmental monitoring, respondents believe that data protection should be improved and the “MyData”-principle should be implemented. Conversely, to make better use of the opportunities in the area of environmental monitoring, the majority of respondents indicates that the exchange of environmental data between qualified actors should be promoted, with the standardization of technical interfaces requiring particular attention.
The state is especially responsible for promoting sufficiency
The federal government is called upon to act as a driving force in all fields of action. Depending on the area, the private sector and civil society also have a leading role to play. When it comes to creating incentives to reduce environmentally harmful consumption, the duty mainly lies with the state. In the other areas, cooperation between government actors and the private sector is needed. The private sector is for example expected to play a proactive role in improving the ecological balance of products and in promoting the repair and recycling friendliness of products with electronic components.