digital explosion

The digital environmental bill is skyrocketing.

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Today, digital technology is almost unanimously regarded as the main lever for economic and social development. In developed countries, where the digital transformation of businesses and the public sector is accelerating, it is often seen as the key solution for returning to growth. In developing countries, its disruptive capacity appears as an opportunity to enter without delay into a third, life-saving industrial revolution. However, the direct and indirect environmental impacts linked to the growing use of digital technology are increasingly being felt and contribute to forming an indelible footprint on our environment and our climate.
 
Ahroughout the years, smartphones have become a kind of extension of our bodies. We don't leave them anymore and have our eyes constantly focused on them. Do we know that, in addition to the many services they render, they are ferocious greedy and terrible predators of our planet? Digital technologies produce more greenhouse gases than air transport and have a growing energy consumption of 9 % per year. A figure to be compared with the world energy consumption which is increasing by "only" 1.5 % during the same period. If we continue on this path, the energy impact of digital technology is expected to double by 2025.
 
A panel of scientists from CNRS, FING and INRIA, among others, gathered in the think tank The Shift Projecthave drawn up this alarming report. The report which they have just released presents a multitude of measures of the energy consumption of our smartphones, tablets, home and office computers. In addition, the consumption of the infrastructures that run them: data centers, fixed and mobile networks, cloud infrastructures, etc., are also included.
 

Exponential growth

These rates of growth in the energy consumption of our digital tools should come as no surprise. The Earth has 4 billion smartphones for 7.5 billion people. A figure that has doubled in the last five years. But we are no longer content with just mobile phones. Billions of connected objects, smart speakers, cameras, alarms, smart thermostats... have appeared on the market and are attracting the attention of more and more consumers. According to a 2015 GSMA study, a four-person household in a developed country will have no less than 50 connected devices by 2020!
 
Change in deliveries of connected domestic equipment (Source: GSMA, 2015)
 
 
But consumers, often blinded by the term "dematerialization", are unable to measure the extent of the environmental damage caused by their arsenal of high-tech tools. Jean-Marc Jancovici, the president of The Shift Project, interviewed by the daily paper Les Echos "...rebels..." Dematerialization' is a noxious expression. Computer users forget that computers had to be made. And when you make a phone call, no one thinks you had to send an Ariane rocket into space and lay cables on the bottom of the ocean. "Few of us are aware that every connection to any of these devices is disrupting operations in data centres that are so energy-intensive that they now have to be installed in the deserted regions of the North Pole or immersed in the cold waters of Scotland - as Microsoft does - to help cool them down.
 
The volume of information to be processed follows an exponential curve: + 35 % of traffic per year. In addition to this avalanche of data, the devices are becoming more complex and more demanding. An iPhone X has a carbon footprint three times greater than that of an iPhone 4. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions from these technologies have increased from 2.5 % to 3.5 % in five years. They have surpassed emissions from global air transport and are on a curve that will bring them to 8 % in 2025, exceeding the CO2 emissions produced by all the cars and two-wheelers on the planet.
 

Energy Voracity

The energy consumption of our appliances is not insignificant, with however big differences according to the uses. The authors of the report tell us that of all the uses we can make of our digital devices, video is by far the most energy-intensive. The report cites a few orders of magnitude to help us measure the weight of each of our actions. For example, viewing a ten-minute online video, available in the Cloud, uses the same amount of electricity as a smartphone consumes over ten days. In other words, the energy impact of viewing the video is about 1500 times greater than the power consumption of the smartphone itself.
It would take 5 hours of uninterrupted writing and sending of emails (100 short emails with a 1 Megabyte attachment) to generate an energy consumption similar to watching a 10-minute video. Another order of magnitude: spending 10 minutes streaming high-definition video on a smartphone is like using a 2000W electric oven at full power for 5 minutes.
 
These alarming figures could make us feel guilty and point the finger at our environmental responsibility when we use these technologies. But it is not as simple as that. Indeed, the authors of the report explain that the production phase of equipment accounts for a very significant share, around 45% in 2020, of the total energy footprint of digital technology, as well as the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. This means that a smartphone user (if he keeps his device for two years) will thus see the total energy consumption induced during the life cycle of this equipment reach more than 90% even before his purchase. This weight of the production phase in the energy impact is of the order of 60% for a connected TV but is much higher than 80% for a laptop. Thus, according to the report, a large part of the environmental challenges of digital technology are not only related to the use that is made of it, but largely to the volume of material produced, its production process, and its lifespan.
 
The analysis of the production phase of the equipment shows the very large quantities of energy used, all the more so as the degree of miniaturisation is high. For example, producing a smartphone weighing 140 grams requires around 700 MJ of primary energy, whereas, according to ADEME, it takes around 85 GJ to produce a 1400 kg petrol car. It therefore takes about 80 times more energy to produce "one gram of smartphone" than to produce "one gram of car".
 

Uncontrolled carbon footprint

With regard to the production of greenhouse gases, the report presents some ratios and comparisons that are very useful in raising awareness of the impacts. For example, the production of a smartphone generates emissions 400 times heavier than its use. To get a good idea of what these figures mean, the authors of the report take a concrete example: considering that a smartphone is used from the age of 10 to 80 in France, and that it is changed every two years, it will have "generated" approximately two tons of GHGs, the equivalent of 200,000 km travelled by train, or the round-trip home-to-work journey of an inhabitant of a department in the greater Paris region during his or her entire working life.
In addition, the trend over the last few years is worrying, as the carbon intensity of smartphones has increased each time a new generation of smartphones has appeared, as shown in the following graph :
 
Carbon footprint of Apple products as specifications increase
(Source: (Benton, Hazell, & Coats, 2015)
 
The production of digital equipment is highly metal-intensive, with some rare and/or critical metals having limited accessible reserves (at cost and with current technologies) and likely production peaks in the coming decades for many of them. This situation is likely not only to weaken the development of uses, but also to undermine the resilience of our digital societies.
While the share of digital in the overall consumption of some of these metals is relatively modest (copper, platinum, gold), the same is not true for others of which it is the main user (gallium, indium, tantalum, ruthenium, germanium). For example, at least forty metals are present in a smartphone, each in quantities ranging from a few milligrams to a few dozen grams.
While the increase in equipment rates and the multiplication of types of peripherals are making full use of the available reserves of these metals, it appears that many of them are poorly recyclable: for example, the recycling rate for indium, gallium, tantalum and germanium is less than 1%.
 

Forward leakage

The explosion of digital technology in all areas of our daily and professional life suggests that we have entered a form of 'flight to the front'. All the lights are on red but, according to the authors of the report, there is still room to change this trajectory. There is no question of restricting the digital world, which has sufficiently demonstrated its advantages. On the other hand, we can adopt sobriety strategies at all levels. Thus, for example, extending the lifespan of equipment is a relatively direct lever that is not very complex to put in place. In our current practices, the conservation of our data could be optimized. Indeed, data storage (whether it is within a local server or hosted by an external supplier) contributes to the environmental impact since it is based on the exploitation of the resources of a data centre, which has a proven environmental impact; why not preferably use document sharing systems limited to essential data rather than systematically using documents attached in emails.
 
Reducing the energy and environmental footprint of digital technology requires a return to an individual and collective capacity to question the social and economic usefulness of our purchasing and consumption behaviours for digital objects and services, and to adapt them accordingly in order to avoid intemperance. Limiting the renewal of terminals as much as possible, avoiding the multiplication of digital copies and segmenting our video uses are indispensable actions.
Sober digital behaviour would essentially consist of buying the least powerful equipment possible, changing it as infrequently as possible, while reducing unnecessary energy-intensive uses. Will we be able to do this and will we be able to resist the sirens of consumer marketing?
 
 

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