The digital revolution : misconceptions and environmental impacts


While more than 1 in 2 French people do not consider Internet to be a major source of pollution, the share of digital technology in global greenhouse gas emissions has increased by half since 2013, rising to 3.8% according to a GreenIT study. It’s more than civil aviation. In addition, the energy intensity of the globe’s digital industry is increasing by 4% per year, an over-consumption that cannot be reconciled with the physical constraints that the planet imposes on us.

Although Internet is oftenly pictured in its “dematerialized” form, it is in fact made up of many materials. According to GreenIT, it weighs 5 times the world’s vehicle fleet and is composed of 34 billion pieces of equipment for 4.1 billion users. This is the equivalent of 8 devices per user, plus network infrastructure and data centers. The sector would consume nearly 10% of the annual electricity consumption worldwide, this have been increasing since 2010 and could reach by a factor of 2.7 in 2025.

While, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy efficiency has never progressed so slowly in the last ten years, electronic devices are more powerful, but not less energy-intensive. The IEA thus warns us of “serious implications” for climate and global energy access. Finally, energy efficiency suffers from another evil, the rebound effect, which should not be overlooked.

The growing impact of digital uses

Today, 60.6% of global Internet traffic is occupied by video streaming, according to the latest Sandvine report. Video on demand accounts for 34% of this traffic, while pornography reached a 27% and social networks, booming 18%. The problem with streaming is that where conventional television has one transmitter for all viewers at the same time, stream requires a set of digital resources for one viewer, watching a video at a given time.

In addition, video streaming is amplified by recommendation algorithms or “autoplay” modes, this is called “binge watching“. Thus, the ecological footprint of streaming seems to have a bright future ahead, especially as Internet use is spreading ever more widely throughout the world.

The case of digital advertising and its induced emissions

Digital advertising, which today accounts for more than half of advertising investments worldwide, is mainly present on social networks and applications. It mobilizes terminal energy and bandwidth on telecommunications networks. Nevertheless, other forms of polluting advertising are flourishing everywhere, this is the case with digital displays, which consume 15 times the energy of backlit panels.

Finally, there is no advertising without products for sale, so the impacts of advertising also concern consumption generated by sales. Consequently, we can wonder about the logic that leads elected officials to ask citizens to make efforts to reduce their energy consumption, while allowing these digital displays.

The tools of the digital world

The tools that make up the digital world represent the biggest challenge of this issue. Even if the digital economy makes it possible to avoid certain emissions, these gains are largely offset by the overconsumption of resources needed to manufacture equipment. Indeed, mineral extraction for digital industry requires more energy as the metal density of mines decreases. The 25 billion objects connected today will be 48 billion by 2025, while 60 million tons of devices are thrown away each year and only 5% of their components and materials are reused or reconditioned.

These findings must be put into perspective. Digital technology enables billions of people to communicate, educate, work and represents a huge potential for emission savings. Digital technology is also 3 times less than the carbon impact of deforestation or almost half of the total energy consumption of commercial buildings. The good news is that there are many ways to reduce your digital footprint, which will give us the opportunity to review some of them in a future article.

At the crossroads of our dreams of infinite growth, the physical limits of the planet and the amount of CO2 that can be released, we do not yet ask ourselves what we should abandon. And yet there are many reasons to do so. Of the 36 materials that are usually used in the manufacture of technological objects, 24 of them pose significant CSR problems.

Therefore, what should we think of a society that, by developing an ability to measure everything, seems to have lost all measure?

François Rabelais said “science without conscience is only ruin of the soul”. In a society as technical as ours and facing humanity’s greatest challenge, it seems urgent to remember this and to engage a societal debate on these issues, in order to give priority to certain uses and to develop a desired, rather than forced, digital sobriety.


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A propos de Albéric BARRET

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