IT infrastructure

Digitization: A climate sinner or savior?

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In this blog, I will discuss how to look at the ICT sector and digitization in relation to CO2-emissions and climate change.

“The founding of Netflix is worse for the climate than the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.”

That was how the hosts of the Danish national radio program ‘Go’ Morgen P3’ concluded, while I was on my way speak at a public debate on sustainability on the morning of October 29th 2020.

The question immediately made me smile but it also made me wonder…

While I do appreciate that getting a laugh and smile from the listeners may have more importance to the Radio hosts than scientific facts, I also see that the ICT sector is often under pressure in the climate debate. After all, computers use electricity for both operation and cooling, and they are produced from raw materials that impact the planet’s climate.

Knowing that the P3 hosts’ questions are far more amusing than mine, then perhaps it was more relevant to ask whether the ICT sector is burdening or saving the environment from a bottom-line perspective?

Putting aside the fact that it will probably be impossible to roll back the heavy use of technology and stop the acceleration of digitization in the years to come, I would like to give my input to a debate on how to look at technology and digitization in relation to reaching the climate goals of 2030.

Facts about the ICT sector

Do we need to accelerate technology investment to achieve global sustainability goals? Or is digitization, with the derivative gigantic consumption of resources and with the change in the social model that digitization brings, in fact one of the biggest sinners in terms of saving humanity from climate disasters?

Over 50% of the world’s population is connected to the internet, and the number is increasing daily with more than half a million new internet users, so that 75% of all people will be online by 2030.

Since 2012, the number of data centers has increased from 500,000 to 8 million worldwide.

Facebook, Instagram, Fortnite, TikTok, Netflix, IoT, and the many other major digital platforms help the average online user generate 1.7 megabytes of new data – per second!

The above services, which are mainly provided by HyperScale Datacenters/Cloud Datacenters, account for a significant part of the IT resource consumption. However, the world’s companies have also established and expanded their own data centers with Mainframes and Supercomputers since the late ’60s, and these still represent over 70% of digital transactions.

5G technology, which is spreading rapidly worldwide, is predicted to cause edge computing to grow exponentially. This will lead to a multiplication of processors and data worldwide.

Quantum computers designed to solve exponential problems (such as discovering new materials or testing new drugs) are expected to gain a foothold commercially when, in 2023, we pass the magic 1,000 qubits in machines.

The many millions of computers in millions of data centers worldwide consume large amounts of energy in the form of power to the servers and not least to get rid of all the heat they generate. Almost 10% of the world’s energy consumption now goes to computers and digital devices (including iPads, Playstations, Smartphones, etc.) and it is estimated that IT and communication technology account for well over 1.5% of the world’s CO2-emissions. And this number is rising. In addition to the contribution of digitization to global CO2-emissions, the climate footprint comes as a result of the planet’s scarce resources in the form of copper, silicon, lithium, and oil to produce the electronics themselves.

With an energy consumption that surpasses the aviation industry, and with an exponential growth curve, the imprint of digitization on the climate is noticeable, and it is quite obvious that IT must be made greener. The good news is that it can also be made significantly greener than what we see today.

Triple bottom line through responsible IT

On the other hand, technology is also here for a reason. In addition to being the foundation of a wide range of amenities in the world community, GeSI claims, among others, that digitization will improve the quality of life worldwide, reduce CO2-emissions by as much as 12 billion tons and improve the economy by $ 11.4 trillion in new revenue sources and through cost savings – all by 2030. If GeSI’s calculations are credible, then 1 ton of CO2 invested in responsible IT will result in 10 tons of CO2-savings in addition to the derived societal and economic gains.

Thus, Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet & Profit) through Responsible Computing.

According to the ITU, which is the UN’s own agency for ICT, digitization will be a crucial catalyst for progress within all 17 UNs Sustainable Development Goals and thus in order to stop climate change.

The logic behind the above reasoning is obvious, as the whole foundation of human civilization and welfare is our ability to gather and pass on learning and knowledge so that future generations start on the platform of expertise that previous generations have built.

IT makes this knowledge sharing much easier and cheaper. Partly because access can be done wirelessly and partly because the costs are relatively low. Thus, the proliferation of internet access in just 25 years has overtaken the proliferation of electricity network (which has existed for 130 years) in sub-Saharan Africa. Here we see in several countries and regions that households have access to the internet, but without having access to electricity.

Access to the internet is a quantum leap for the knowledge society, and at least as crucial, it provides access to new business models, which in turn means that the standard of living rises with digital development.

And it is precisely this relationship that is absolutely crucial to one of the biggest global problems, namely population growth. The more people we become, the greater is the impact on the planet’s resources.

Digitization is good for society (and population growth?)

There is little doubt that humans are the most invasive species on the planet. Not necessarily measured in the amount of carbon and biomass, but measured in our influence on how things evolve on the planet and the consumption of the planet’s scarce resources, then we are the biggest threat to our own existence.

Dan Esty, environmental lawyer and professor at Yale, visited Copenhagen in early March. I had the honor of participating in a debate with Dan and several of our Danish climate activists. The starting point for the meeting was Dan’s latest book “A better planet”, where he presents 40 ideas for creating a sustainable future. Dan was on tour around the world, partly to present the book, and partly to get inspiration for future publications.

Most of the examples in the book are based on the western world (primarily the USA), and how we can use transformation and technology to carry out a transformation towards a more sustainable society, but I noted that Denmark, according to Dan Esty, is far ahead of the United States when it comes to thinking and not least acting sustainably. Dan asked each of the meeting participants why we each thought that Denmark was at the forefront here, and the essence of most of the answers around the table could be boiled down to the fact that:

Equality in society creates good conditions for sustainable thinking.

When everyone has financial resources to live a good life, and almost no one needs to worry about how they get a roof over their heads and clothes on their bodies, and when everyone has access to education and knowledge through free and compulsory schooling, then we have the best possible conditions for thinking sustainably. And because of the equality in our society, then we can stand together on it as a nation. It’s pure Maslow. When the needs (physical, security and social needs) are met, then there is room for the growth needs (Self-actualization), and for now, the struggle for sustainability seems to be a growth need in the “Maslow sense”.

So where does digitization come into the picture?

According to Hans Rosling, the solution to population growth is to stop economic inequality in the world. The equation is simple; the higher the wealth, the lower the infant mortality rate, and the lower infant mortality rate, the fewer children are born per woman. When each woman gives birth to fewer than two children on average, population growth stagnates or decreases.

It can easily end up in a chicken-and-egg discussion, but according to Rosling’s own data, which is freely available at www.gapminder.org, there is a large correlation between the spread of the internet and the number of children per woman – without the database directly explains whether digitization or the standard of living came first. The figures below show the connection quite clearly, as the circles represent the nations of the world and the size of the circles shows the population of the country.

The curious reader can even continue to play with the data models on gaps, and see that there is also a connection between GDP per capita and the spread of the internet, gender equality, level of education, corruption, and many other parameters that we use to describe a healthy and well-functioning society. This indicates that we can tick off the first of GeSI’s claims about the triple bottom line, namely that digitization has a positive impact on society.

Digitization is good for CO2-emissions and the climate

With the population growth we have today, it is simply impossible to optimize the utilization of the planet’s resources without the use of powerful computers to count on all the data included in the equation.

Before we look at some of the many examples of how digitization is linked to the UNs Sustainable Development Goals, I would like to look at what Hans Rosling’s data says about CO2-emissions (thus the climate) and digitization. Since we can not change the fact that more people lead to greater emissions, it is interesting to look at the development of CO2-emissions per capita. Here, too, the statistics are in favor of digitization.

I have chosen to highlight China, USA, and Denmark in the illustration above, but the picture is actually the same in all the countries I looked at more closely. There is a decrease in emissions as the spread of the internet in the countries approaches 75%.

Denmark 1990: 9.77 tons/person
Denmark 2014: 5.91 tons / person

USA 1990: 19.1 tons/person
USA 2014: 16.5 tons / person

It can be difficult to see as far as China is concerned, as China is barely up to 50% spread of the Internet in 2014, but the graph shows that the growth in emissions per person has more or less stagnated around 2010, and the growth in emissions to 2010 is probably due more to a growth in industrial production than to digitization.

I am aware that this is no conclusive evidence that digitization benefits CO2-emissions and the climate in total, but it does show that the emissions that ICT brings do not exceed the reductions that we are able to achieve in line with the spread of the internet.

If we compare it with the fact that we probably would not succeed in getting a petrol-powered car to drive over 20 km per liter without a computer to optimize fuel consumption. Vestas utilizes Supercomputers to maximize the energy yield of their wind turbines. The L’oreal Group, which recently completed a 3-year Industry 4.0 project, has reduced their CO2 emissions by 77%.

Through the COVID-19 crisis, where we have seen increases of several hundred percent in the utilization of digital communication platforms, we should, if ICT was the sinner, have seen a sharp increase in CO2 emissions. Instead, we saw a fall!

Digitization is good for the economy

Yara, the world’s leading fertilizer producer, has set itself the goal of combating global food shortages through precision farming and using 100 years of weather data, industry knowledge, AI and Blockchain technology. When farmers around the world can optimize the yield of their fields without overdosing on fertilizers and chemicals to the detriment of the environment, it has enormous implications for the economy, food production and the environment as:

Yara expects to be able to increase food yield by 30% while reducing the amount of fertilizer.

Maersk, which accounts for 25% of the world’s food transport, is a pioneer in the use of Blockchain to create transparency in the entire container transport industry from the time the avocado is packed in the container until it reaches its destination in your local grocery store. The Tradelens platform, possibly in combination with Foodtrust, can lead to a significant reduction in food waste. (Read more about Foodtrust in this blog).

Egetæpper have set out, through the use of advanced technology (Volcat) in combination with a Blockchain platform for the repurchase and collection of used carpets, to reorient their entire production to recycling used materials.

Using Blockchain technology, AI, and IoT, Andel has taken an important step in relation to not only increasing the use of green energy but also taking the step further and switching off some of the black power plants.

I believe that…

The environmental, social, and economic benefits of digitization outweigh the environmental impact of the ICT sector in total, reducing climate change.

  • We do not have to sit back and wait for technology to solve it all for us. It does not, but we have to think about digitization in our solutions, as we can hardly do without it
  • Although digitization seems to have a predominantly positive impact on the environment, it does not absolve IT-providers from acting responsibly and from continuously optimizing energy consumption and choosing green solutions for data centers.
  • With the technologies we already know today, we can reach the 2030 CO2-emission targets and we can eliminate the link between economic growth and growth in emissions. However, it requires decision-makers to be aware of the existence of solutions and to have the will and courage to implement them.
  • Compared with the socially beneficial effects of digitization; improvement of the aquatic environment, food production, disease control, education, cooperation, and the contribution to the other UN Sustainable Development Goals, then it is now that digitization must be at the top of the agenda for both politicians and business leaders in Denmark
  • Denmark is doing well, but if we are to maintain or increase our lead, and if we as a nation are to make accountability and sustainability part of our national brand, then now is the time to invest

The issue of sustainability is far too important to leave the responsibility to politicians alone. It requires that citizens, universities and companies also actively engage collaboratively to solve the task.

What is your standpoint on the interconnection between digitization, CO2-emissions, and climate change?

If you have any further questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me at BRASMUS7@dk.ibm.com

Nordic CTO & Technical Sales Executive - Global Markets

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