Disrupting the climate

What’s the role of the tech world in preventing climate chaos?

10 years on from the groundbreaking Climate Change Act, we take this week to investigate what preventing climate chaos will look like across the UK economy. From digital tech to the health system, governance to finance, and how to talk about climate change, we explore where we are falling short — and how we can change the rules to build an economy fit for the future.

There is an interesting tension at the heart of the digital economy, between image and reality. Technology presents itself as clean and immaterial, backed by an industry good at proclaiming its eco-credentials, however minor, and which cleverly emphasises the potential of their products to help us be more efficient. In reality, however, the digital economy today is a huge drain on our global resources: mining for rare earth minerals, huge server farms requiring massive amounts of energy, and millions of devices dumped each year.

It is too easy to forget that our phones, TVs and computers contain huge amounts of embedded energy from mining, manufacturing and transport of materials and products. But in addition every interaction we have with digital technology consumes energy not only where you are but, when using networks across the world. Google calculate that searching on Google, for the average user over the course of a year, generates CO2 emissions equivalent to one washing machine cycle. Now multiply that by many billions of searches – and consider that we’re only talking about the energy for one type of internet action.

Digital technology loves to create disruption, which can be transformative but also hugely wasteful. Bitcoin has grown to such a scale that it is a major contributor to global energy consumption. It is estimated that this year the network will consume 72.12 TWh of energy (equivalent to that of Austria) to process all the transactions securely. Now that might be justifiable if the outcome were something of great value to the world – but all we have is a distributed ledger where a tiny minority of people store some of their value. 

Over the last 10 years digital technology has become more efficient. Driven by policy as well as growing consumer awareness, everything from fridges to computers to ovens use much less energy. But we are also using much more technology. If we really are heading to a glorious connected and automated future where chips are embedded in everything, and where your fridge does the shopping for you while your car drives you to work, then digital technology is going to use ever increasing amounts of energy and resources. Forecasts predict that by 2030 digital technology could be consuming over 20% of global energy production (over 8,000 TWh).

Image: Chargers collected as electronics dump, Agbogbloshie, Ghana. Fairphone (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Three ways to climate-proof digital tech

Digital technology has an impact on climate change in three distinct ways – all of which we need to radically change if we want a chance of preventing climate chaos.

1. Change what goes into tech

For too long our society has been based on extraction, use and dumping – a linear and wasteful economy. We need to embrace the circular economy – which sees materials as flowing and being constantly reused and recycled, saving huge amounts of energy. Digital technology is at the heart of this challenge.

The mining and production of the raw materials used by digital technology is probably the murkiest part of the process. It carries huge environmental implications: from the energy needed to extract the material from the ground, through to the huge volumes of toxic pollutants needed to refine materials like gold and rare earth metals. As well as harming the environment, processes involved in producing digital devices are inextricable from the inhumane labour conditions forced on exploited workers, like the Democratic Republic of Congo miners looking for coltan, to the tin miners of Bangka.

Using more recycled materials can have huge environmental gains. For instance, producing recycled aluminium requires only 5% of the energy to produce virgin aluminium; for steel the figure is 26%.

2. Change how tech is made

The second process is the design and manufacturing of the product. For too long the business models underpinning digital technology have relied on the constant upgrade of products, creating new features which stoke demand for the new gadget.

Throwing away a product early and getting the latest one is hugely wasteful, with a high environmental and social impact. Products must be made easily repairable and more importantly modular so that when a new component is available it can easily be removed and replaced.

One idea could be to return to the lease model for the technology that we use. Under the lease model, manufacturers would continue to own the product and you would be leasing the service that it provides. This means manufacturers would now have an incentive to make products that last as long as possible (since they have to pay when it fails), that are easily repairable (since they have to shoulder the cost of repair) and easily upgradable (since otherwise they have to pay for a new product).

Manufacturers have embraced the concept of making their equipment slightly more energy efficient and recyclable than previous models, thanks in no small part to an EU Directive. However most products are still not properly designed to be repaired and remanufactured – as well as not requiring customers to continuously upgrade.

3. Change how tech is used

Finally there is the use phase. What powers our devices? By this stage, although we cannot do a huge amount about the energy consumption of the product (and remember: even replacing a component to one that is more energy efficient could cost energy in the long run due to the embedded energy from resource extraction and manufacturing). However here at least we have the chance to mitigate our impact by using clean energy.

A new way of thinking

What we really need is a whole new way of thinking about digital technology. In a world focused on ownership driven by conspicuous consumption, in the thralls of a digital revolution, we have created a sprawling global beast that might consume our society as well as ever greater amounts of energy and resources.

Digital technology can be a huge boon to society, especially in the age of the internet of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence AI. To ensure this we need companies and society to fundamentally rethink the way we make and use digital technology. We need legislation coupled with political and social pressure to ensure that we have a digital economy that can play its role in enabling a fairer and more sustainable future. That the future will be digital is a given, but whether it is a future of abundance or scarcity is at stake in the choices that we make today.

This article was originally published in a longer version on BusinessGreen.

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