Sustainable digitization requires a broader perspective

Image Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

The Covid-19 pandemic has given a huge boost to digitization worldwide to keep society running as much as possible. We do our shopping online more often, we keep in touch through social media and video calling, and we work digitally from home in droves. By flying less together, getting into our cars less often, and spending more time relaxing in our own region, the impact on the environment is also reduced. Do digital platforms and online services therefore definitely make a positive contribution to the climate, a healthy society and the preservation of employment?

Climate benefits through digitization

Of course, there is a lot to be said for digital technology making a positive contribution to society and climate: we can use less paper and, quite apart from the covid pandemic, we don’t have to get into the car or plane for work as often. Less demand for car transport also leads to lower production demand in the longer term, which indirectly affects the capacity of heavy industries, which have a major impact on CO2 emissions. Ultimately, it is about the whole chain from raw material to end-use where the improvement should become visible.

In an article in the NRC on June 12, the first indications of this were mentioned: “However long the state of ‘less’ will last – worldwide the pandemic is spreading for the time being – in the climate statistics it is already visible. Global greenhouse gas emissions are likely to fall by 8 percent this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) expects. That’s a record drop, six times greater than that in recession year 2009.”

The Internet is thus partially replacing the physical road network as a vital infrastructure. Moreover, the transition to sustainable energy cannot be achieved without a digital infrastructure that can manage a diversification of our power grid. For how do you ensure that all the fluctuations associated with the supply from solar and wind energy are absorbed and that distributed storage becomes possible?

Conscious use of energy is part of the equation

And the transition to sustainable energy is badly needed. After all, our rapidly increasing use of digital facilities, and the underlying infrastructure mentioned above, requires a lot of electricity. And no matter how quickly we make our energy sector more sustainable, if demand continues to rise faster then there will still be a net decline because we cannot replace the existing supply in this way. And while that obviously increases the absolute amount of energy from renewable sources, it limits the gains for the climate.

In short, as part of becoming more sustainable, we will also have to take a critical look at our use of energy. And precisely in this light, one of the best-known examples of a “successful” diseruptive technology, Bitcoin, is a poignant one. Although intended to break the banking sector’s monopoly on payments, in practice the Bitcoin is mainly used for speculation based on the fluctuating values of this digital currency.

In order to make the banks superfluous as the trusted third party involved in a transaction, cryptographic encryption is used. With a lot of computing power, it must be proven that a transaction is valid and recognized by the parties involved. However, in the case of the Bitcoin distributed network, this involves everyone connected to it.

This process requires such an amount of computing power from computers that the Bitcoin network as a whole now uses more energy than countries like Venezuela and Austria, as seen in a summary of the BitCoin network’s energy consumption. Special “mining farms” have even sprung up for the cryptographic calculations to provide the computing power required, and to make as much money as possible from “mining” the Bitcoins. At the end of 2017, the energy consumption of the Bitcoin network already exceeded that of 159 countries.

In practice, according to calculations, for a single transaction over 322 kg of CO2 are emitted. By comparison, the same emissions can be used to carry out over 800,000 credit card transactions, and to watch over 15,000 hours of YouTube videos.

Innovating not in terms of point solutions but in a context-aware way

While the idea behind Bitcoin is laudable, the side effects of using it in practice are far from ideal. Most ironically, the Bitcoin network is not fit for purpose; it is much too slow and expensive to conduct transactions and replace existing payment systems.

Therefore, offering a solution to a specific problem, for example through digital innovations, is not enough. We need to look at the bigger picture in order to assess whether the intended results are actually being achieved, and whether the solution has any negative side effects.

In her book ‘Natural Intelligence’, Leen Gorissen writes about the importance of learning from nature. Evolution is a form of innovation that always aims to leave the environment better than it was before. After all, that is the only way to ensure that life continues to exist. Nature does not extract without giving more in return. Simply put: there are always more positive side effects than negative ones.

Digital platforms focused solely on financial gain are obviously not the answer to a need for a sustainable world. It is essential that we take the interests of the collective into account in the choices we make. Especially at a time when there are technologically unprecedented opportunities, it’s about being aware of the values it honors and collective needs it serves, rather than just the financial value it provides.

Change often begins with asking a simple question

The first step in achieving sustainable innovation and technological progress for the greater good is, of course, to ask the right critical questions. Are we doing the right things and are we doing things right?

From the above perspective, then, it is interesting to note that the biggest increases in computing power in the future are expected to include the ability to make calculations for complex climate models.

However, one might wonder whether ever greater computing power for such models is really necessary, if we were to succeed in using less energy and fossil fuels for digital platforms that have limited collective societal value, or even defeat their purpose. So far, nature has managed quite well without our calculations and simulations. And how we fare as humanity is largely in our own hands.