Is Digitalisation a Driver for Sustainability?
Digitalisation has entered almost every realm of our daily lives. The current debate on digitalisation has been dominated by the opportunities that technical innovations offer, while discussions about the sustainability impacts of digitalisation on the employment market and data security have also been picking up pace. However, sustainability issues with regard to the environmental impacts and resource consumption triggered by the ongoing digitalisation process have not received any substantial attention. This article highlights the direct impacts of digitalisation, especially on resource consumption and environmental categories. From the top-down perspective, increasing digitalisation is expected to lead to an increase in the overall electricity consumption of information and communication technologies (ICT), despite tremendous energy-efficiency gains at the level of individual end-products. Specifically, the electricity consumption of data centres and telecommunication networks—representing the main building blocks of a digitalisation strategy—is expected to increase enormously in Europe over the next few years. The electricity consumption of data centres in Europe is forecast to increase by almost 35% to 70 TWh in 2020, while that of telecommunication networks is set to rise 150% to 50 TWh in 2020 (reference case 2011). In the EU-27 countries, the share of ICT-related electricity consumption, in the use phase, is expected to increase from 7.7% in 2011 to 8.1% in 2020. From the bottom-up perspective, case studies on online vs. offline storage and e-books vs. print books show that the environmental impacts are dependent upon specific use phase conditions. No unequivocal advantages or disadvantages can be derived in terms of relevance to climate protection. In an extensive use scenario, online storage tends to be superior to an offline solution from an environmental point of view. Conversely, offline use is associated with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than online storage in the case of heavy use. A similar trend was observed for the case study on e-books. If an e-book reader is used for very few books, then paper books are preferable from an environmental perspective. As an improvement option, the conclusion is that an e-book reader should be used by frequent readers. If possible, it should also be used for different purposes such as reading books, newspapers, journals and other documents, thus lowering the impact per functional unit. Furthermore, the life of the e-book reader should be prolonged as far as possible. The fundamental award principles for eco-labels—such as the Blue Angel—already exist for data centres as well as for the ICT devices that are relevant here. The criteria set out in these fundamental award principles already address the crucial influencing parameters that are relevant for digital services (data centres) as well as alternatives (ICT products, such as PCs, smartphones and e-book readers). This article recommends the development of an appropriate political framework for the digitalisation strategy to ensure that requirements for sustainable development (goals) are taken into consideration. The multi-level perspective (MLP), as briefly discussed in this article, could be used to develop this framework.
KeywordsElectricity Consumption Telecommunication Network Online Storage Cumulative Energy Demand Paper Book
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