A marriage of convenience: ecological transition and digital revolution |  Opinion

A marriage of convenience: ecological transition and digital revolution | Opinion

Two major trends mark our time: the ecological transition and the digital revolution. So much so, that when the European Union decided to grow after the pandemic, with that show of force that is the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience program, it did so by betting on economic modernization understood as the sum of digitizing and greening. Nothing guarantees, however, that both go hand in hand. If they do, they will feed and strengthen each other; otherwise, the result can be catastrophic.

Usually, digitization has been considered an ally of sustainability in several ways. In the first place, to the extent that it helps to dematerialize and decarbonize the economy, promoting the exchange of products for services, which also opens up a whole new field of economic development. On the other hand, digitization helps to have more and better information, thus enabling more efficient administration in multiple fields, from logistics management to optimization of the energy system, going through, for example, mobility or the development of called Smart Cities. Digitization is also a key factor in innovation, especially through cooperative mechanisms such as collective intelligence and open experimentation, essential to continue advancing in sustainability. It is not strange, therefore, that digital and green have been considered allies.

That this alliance between both vectors continue to be so is so important that it is worth drawing up the risk map in order to face and eliminate them. Here the problems begin. According to the International Energy Agency, digitization today already accounts for the consumption of 3% of global primary energy and 7% of electricity, it is responsible for between 2% and 4% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. the world and between 15 and 25 million CO₂ equivalent, that is, double the emissions of air transport. If nothing is done to prevent it, it is estimated that digital technologies in the EU will represent 40% of greenhouse gas emissions and 10% of electricity consumption by 2030.

On the other hand, and in view of reports such as those prepared by Andrés Ortega and Gregorio Martín for the Elcano Royal Institute and the G-20, in the last 50 years the energy consumption associated with information and communication technologies (ICT ) has not stopped growing, giving reason to the Jevons paradox, according to which the increase in efficiency tends to simultaneously lead to an increase in emissions, because, in this case, the energy savings achieved through improvements technology in devices is offset by increased use of ICT.

To this we must also add the use of materials associated with digital devices, which implies the need for minerals, some of them rare earths, scarce and difficult to extract, which are at the base of numerous conflicts, some even armed, in poor countries.

These challenges have their own and differentiated characteristics in the so-called global south. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2040 70% of future energy demand will come from non-OECD States, so developing countries will also be central in this issue. The global south must not be left behind in incorporating digitization, and it must do so with the same ecological transition criteria adapted to its socioeconomic reality. Also in this case the ecological transition must be fair.

The sustainability of the planet cannot allow digitization to be an enemy, because in such a case the result of the contest is sung. It is enough to think that the ecological is thought of in terms of transition, while when we talk about the digital we refer to it as a revolution. One advances slowly, the other moves at unstoppable speed. The first is to be done in an orderly manner and with social justice; the second can take everything ahead. If the dilemma is ecological transition versus digital revolution, it is clear who wins and who loses. Rather, we all lose, those of us who are here and those who will come.

The relationship between these two vectors of change is something that is beginning to be studied by forums of experts and analysts in an interdisciplinary way. Without going any further, last November Bilbao hosted the ninth edition of the Bilbao European Encounters, under the title Green Digital Conference, dedicated to this matter. Dozens of specialists from the world of engineering, physics, data science, philosophy, sociology and political science met to think together how to make possible what is already called the twin transition, which is nothing more than the alliance of the green and digital transition, so that both provide positive feedback. It is a challenge that unites technical aspects with challenges related to governance and others of a social and educational nature. Given that no research institute by itself, nor any area of ​​knowledge in isolation, can address a multifaceted challenge like this, it is necessary for the set of knowledge to think together in a transdisciplinary way how to make possible the complementarity and alignment of both transformations.

The good news is that proposals are beginning to emerge to make this possible. The aforementioned meeting gave rise to the Bilbao Green Digital Declaration, which contains many of these proposals elaborated in this and other specialized meetings. Some refer to issues related to the technological field, such as the incorporation of ecodesign criteria in the development and implementation of digital systems or the development of green algorithms based on data science and artificial intelligence to improve energy efficiency. There is also no lack of proposals that appeal to education and that have to do with sustainable digital literacy among the population, promoting good digital consumption habits, especially among young people, who are strongly aware of sustainability and environmental protection, which becomes an essential actor in this matter.

All in all, the main recommendations appeal to the need for governance of the digital revolution. It is necessary to rigorously measure and with reliable and agreed methodologies the emissions associated with all digitization in order to monitor its evolution, avoid banal technology, promote the reuse of electronic materials and devices within the framework of a “circular digital economy” , as well as associating renewable energies with digitization processes. Along with this, it is essential to protect vulnerable individuals, populations, species and environments that may be negatively affected by the extraction of raw materials for digitization and for energy production, guaranteeing fair and equitable access to the benefits and burdens of such processes.

These are some of the keys to a new governance that must incorporate environmental regulation responsibilities into the digital sector to guarantee that the two great challenges, the ecological transition and the digital revolution, move in the same direction, creating positive synergies that allow maximizing their impact and speed up the changes.

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