Digital sobriety’ can halt tech-fuelled global warming, says report
5 March 2019
Our tech addiction is cooking the planet. The manufacture and use of smartphones, computers and TVs will produce 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 8 per cent by 2025.
That is the conclusion of a report on the sustainability of the digital technology sector put together by 12 experts for a Paris-based think tank called The Shift Project, which says that energy use in this sector is increasing by 9 per cent every year.
“The ‘good effects’ of digital technologies, in terms of energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions, are constantly neutralised at global scale by the fact that we use these technologies without thinking about the right way to do it,” he says.
The Shift Project wants companies and governments to adopt “digital sobriety” as a principle. That means buying less-powerful machines, replacing them less frequently and not using energy-intensive approaches where possible.
Although there is some evidence that consumers are replacing smartphones less often, the general trend is to do more with ever-more-powerful machines. Artificial intelligence in particular is extremely energy-intensive.
The report’s definition of digital technology includes the data centres that store and supply internet content, along with the equipment needed to access it, from phones to Wi-Fi routers. It doesn’t include digital equipment in cars and factories. As there are no official global measures of digital energy use, the team instead had to make estimates on the basis of available data, such as statistics on the sales of TVs and other hardware.
The report updates a 2015 study by Anders Andrae of Huawei Technologies. That study has been criticised for greatly overestimating the growth in energy consumption. The new work, however, suggests that digital energy use is growing much faster than previously predicted. “The report is sound,” says Andrae. “They have thought a lot about the problem at hand.”