Category Archives: Climate change

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Filed under Africa, AI, Asia, capitalism, China, Climate change, Commonwealth, Covid-19, cybersecurity, Development, digital technologies, Disability, Education, Empowerment, Environment, Europe, Gender, Geography, ICT4D, ICTs, inclusion, India, Inequality, Internet, Latin America, Learning, poverty, Restaurants, Rural, SDGs, Sustainability, UK, United Nations

Inter Islamic Network on IT and COMSATS University workshop on ICT for Development: Mainstreaming the Marginalised

PostersThe 3rd ICT4D workshop convened by the Inter Islamic Network on IT (INIT) and COMSATS University in Islamabad, and supported by the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D (Royal Holloway, University of London) and the Ministry of IT and Telecom in Pakistan on the theme of Mainstreaming the Marginalised was held at the Ramada Hotel in Islamabad on 28th and 29th January 2020.  This was a very valuable opportunity for academics, government officials, companies, civil society organisations and donors in Pakistan to come together to discuss practical ways through which digital technologies can be used to support  economic, social and political changes that will benefit the poorest and most marginalised.  The event was remarkable for its diveristy of participants, not only across sectors but also in terms of the diversity of abilities, age, and gender represented.  It was a very real pleasure to participate in and support this workshop, which built on the previous ones we held in Islamabd in 2016 and 2017.

The inaugural session included addresses by Prof Dr Raheel Qamar (President INIT and Rector COMSATS University, Islamabad), Mr. Shoaib Ahmed Siddiqui (Federal Secretary Ministry of IT & Telecom) and Dr. Tahir Naeem (Executive Director, INIT), as well as my short keynote on Digital Technologies, Climate Change and Sustainability.  This was followed by six technical sessions spread over two days:

  • Future of learning and technology
  • Policy to practice: barriers and challenges
  • Awareness and inclusion: strategizing through technology
  • Accessibility and Technology: overcoming barriers
  • Reskilling the marginalised: understandng role reversals
  • Technical provisio: indigenisation for local needs.

These sessions included a wide diversity of activities, ranging from panel sessions, practical demonstrations, and mind-mapping exercises, and there were plenty of opportunities for detailed discussions and networking.

Highlights for me amongst the many excellent presentations included:

  • Recollections by Prof Abdful Mannan and Prof Ilyas Ahmed of the struggles faced by people with disabilities in getting their issues acknowledged by others in society, and of the work that they and many others have been doing to support those with a wide range of disabilities here in Pakistan
  • The inspirational presentations by Julius Sweetland of his freely available Open Source Optikey software enabling those with multiple disbilities to use only their eyes to write and control a keyboard
  • Meeting the young people with Shastia Kazmi (Vision 21 and Founder of Little Hands), who have gained confidence and expertise through her work and are such an inspiration to us all in continuing our work to help some of the pooorest and most marginalised to be empowered through digital technologies.
  • The very dynamic discussions around practical actions that we can all take to enable more inclusive use of  digital technologies (mindmaps of these available below)

Enormous thanks must go to Dr. Tahir Naeem (COMSATS University and Executive Director of INIT) and his team, especially Dr. Akber Gardezi and Atiq-ur-Rehman, for all that they did to make this event such a success.

A shortened version of this workshop was also subsequently held on Monday 3rd February at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, thanks to the support and facilitation of Dr. Mukesh Khatwani (Director of the Area Study Centre for Far East and Southeast Asia) and his colleagues.  This also focused on the practical ways through which some of the most marginalised can benefit from the appropriate use of digital technologies, and it was once again good to have the strong involvement of persons with disabilities.

Quick links to workshop materials and outputs:

 

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Filed under Climate change, Conferences, Environment, Gender, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Pakistan, Uncategorized

Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector

This is the third of a trilogy of posts on the interface between digital technologies and “Climate Change”.  Building on the previous discussion of challenges with the notion of “climate change” and the anti-sustainability practices of the digital technology sector, this last piece in the trilogy suggests policy principles that need to be put in place, as well as some of the complex challenges that need to be addressed by those who do really want to address the negative impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Telecentre small

To be sure, various global initiatives have been put in place to try to address some of the challenges noted above, and the impact of digital technologies on “Climate Change” is being increasingly recognised, although much less attention is paid to its impact on wider aspects of the environment.  One challenge with many such global initiatives is that they have tended to suffer from an approach that fragments the fundamental problems associated with the environmental impact of digital technologies into specific issues that can indeed be addressed one at a time.  This is problematic, as noted in the previous two parts of this commentary, because addressing one issue often causes much more damage to other aspects of the environment.

As I have noted elsewhere,[i] the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) is one of the most significant such initiatives, having produced numerous reports, as well as a Sustainability Assessment Framework (SASF) that companies and organisations can use to evaluate their overall sustainability.  This has three main objectives:

  • “Strengthen ICT sector as significant player for achieving sustainable development goals
  • Enable companies to evaluate and improve their product portfolios with a robust and comprehensive instrument
  • Address sustainability issues of products and services in a coherent manner providing the basis for benchmarking and voluntary agreements”.[ii]

However, GeSI is made up almost exclusively of private sector members, and is primarily designed to serve corporate interests as the wording of the above objectives suggests.  Typically, for example, it has shown clearly how companies can reduce their carbon imprint,[iii] and many are now beginning to do so quite effectively, but the unacknowledged impact of their behaviour on other aspects of the environment is often down-played.  Little of their work has, for example, yet included the impact of satellites on the environment.  Likewise, it has failed to address the fundamentally anti-sustainable business model on which much of the sector is based.

Similarly, civil society organisations have also tended to fragment the digital-environment into a small number of parts for which it is relatively easy to gather quantifiable data. Thus, Greenpeace’s greener electronics initiative focuses exclusively on energy use, resource consumption and chemical elimination.[iv] These are important, though, showing that most digital companies that they analysed have a very long way to go before they could be considered in any way “green”; in 2017 only Fairphone (B) and Apple (B-) came anywhere near showing a shade of green in their ranking.  Recent work by other organisations such as the carbon transition think tank The Shift Project has also begun to suggest ways through which ICTs can become a more effective part of the solution to the environmental impact of ICTs rather than being part of the problem as it is at present, although usually primarily from a carbon-centric perspective focusing on climate change.[v]

These observations, alongside those in Parts I and II, give rise to at least seven main policy implications:

Above all, it is essential that a much more holistic approach is adopted to policies and practices concerning the environmental impact of digital technologies.

These must go far beyond the current carbon fetish and include issues as far reaching as landscape change, the use of satellites and the negative environmental impacts of renewable energy provision.  There is a long tradition of research and practice on Environmental Impact Analysis that could usefully be drawn upon more comprehensively in combination with the ever-expanding, but more specific, attention being paid purely to “Climate Change”.

Such assessments need to weigh up both the positive and the negative environmental impacts of digital technologies.

This issue is discussed further below, but there needs to be much more responsible thinking about how we evaluate the wider potential impact of one kind of technology, which might do harm directly, although offering some beneficial solutions more broadly.

The fundamental anti-sustainability business models and practices of many companies in the digital technology sector must be challenged and changed.

The time has come for companies that claim to be doing good with respect to carbon emissions, but yet remain bound by a business approach that requires ever more frequent new purchases, need to be called to task.  Companies that maintain restrictive policies towards repairing devices must be challenged.  Mindsets need to change so that there is complete re-conceptualisation of how consumers and companies view technology.  Laptops, tablets and phones should, for example, be designed in ways that could allow them to be kept in use for a decade rather than a few years.  Until then, much of the rhetoric about ICTs contributing to sustainable development remains hugely hypocritical.

There needs to be fundamental innovation in the ways that researchers and practitioners theorize and think about the environmental impact of digital technologies.

It will be essential for all involved to create new approaches and methodologies in line with the emphasis on a holistic approach to understanding the environmental impact of digital technologies noted above.  Only then will it be possible to avoid the piecemeal and fragmented approach that still dominate today, and thus move towards the use of technologies that can truly be called sustainable.

In turn, it is likely that such new theorizing will have substantial implications for data.

Much work on the climate impact of digital technologies is shaped by existing data that have already been produced. New models and approaches are likely to require new data to be created.

It is important that there is open and informed public debate about the real impacts of digital technologies on the wider environment, and not just on climate.

The vested interest of companies, still driven by their unsustainable practices, against such debate are huge.  However, if consumers could better understand the environmental damage caused by the digital technology system, they would be able to make improved choices about the sorts of technology they use, and how long they keep it for before replacing it.  This is why the work or organisations such as the Restart Project is so important.[vi]

Government action and international agreements are essential.

There is insufficient good evidence that the private sector will regulate itself sufficiently to make the fundamental changes necessary. Government action and international agreement are therefore essential elements of an integrated approach to the wiser use of digital technologies.  The European Union’s recent steps in 2019 concerning the right to repair are a beginning to move in this direction,[vii] but much more comprehensive action is necessary.  International organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union have a key role to play here, but their increasing alliance with private sector companies to fund their activities and their determination to show that the sector is indeed delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals make it difficult for them to respond to the extent required.  Leaders and Ministers in small island states, who are likely to be impacted most imminently by sea level change, might well be able to play an important role in sensitising the wider global community to the importance of these agendas.

The creation of a multi-sector commission

We can no longer rely on private sector funded and led entities to shape the global dialogue on the environmental impact of digital technology.[viii] If there is sufficient will in the international community, a strong case can be made for the creation of a new multi-sector global commission or similar such body to address these issues.  Amongst other things, this could shape the necessary holistic approach, disseminate reliable and trustworthy knowledge, commission new research, present unbiased conclusions, and advise governments on the actions they need to take to ensure that digital technology is developed wisely and environmentally responsibly.

 

This trilogy has been written to raise awareness of some of the challenges and issues relating to the impact of digital technology on the environment. It is by no means comprehensive, and many important issues have not been addressed.  Amongst the most significant of these are questions around the balance between serving broader good while doing localised harm.  For example, is it acceptable to use digital technologies that do indeed cause environmental harm, if such use actually reduces significant environmental harm caused by other economic or cultural activities?  Such questions are of profound importance, and can only be resolved effectively through ethical considerations and people’s moral agendas. There needs to be widespread public debate as to the kind of future we wish to create.  I have addressed some of these in my previous work, but they remain worthy of a much more comprehensive analysis.[ix]

 

It is time to unmask the hypocrisy of those shaping a future of anti-sustainable digital technologies whilst claiming that they contribute to sustainable development.  It is not yet too late to reject the false promises of the digital barons, and reclaim our full sentient experience of the physical environment. It is not yet too late to reject the digital slavery that they seeking to impose on us.  It is not yet too late for us to reclaim our role as guardians of our planet’s future.


[i] Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71

[ii] https://gesi.org/platforms/sustainability-assessment-framework-sasf-1

[iii] Much of GeSI’s work has been driven by the need for companies to respond to the Carbon fetish, with its latest statements on ways through which the sector can deliver the 2030 sustainability agenda being replete with mentions of CO2 https://smarter2030.gesi.org/the-opportunity/.

[iv] See https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/campaigns/detox/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/. See also Greenpeace’s (2017) Guide to Greener Electronics, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics-2017.pdf.

[v] The Shift Project (2019) Lean ICT – Towards Digital Sobriety, https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf.

[vi] https://therestartproject.org/

[vii] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[viii] Although GeSI has produced much interesting work, its private sector focus means that it is by no means impartial.  Eight of its Board members, for example, are drawn from the private sector, with the ninth being a representative of the ITU; most of its staff have an industry background; and almost all of its members and partners are private sector companies or entities.

[ix] Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals

This is the second of a trilogy of three posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change.  It argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.  The digital technology industry is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally damaging industrial sectors in the modern world.  Its leaders have long been unwilling to face up to the challenges, and continue to focus primarily on the claim that they are contributing significantly to delivering the so-called Sustainable Development Goals.[i]  If digital technologies are indeed to do “good”, especially with respect to the physical environment that sustains us all, it is time for a dramatic rethink of all aspects of the sector’s activities.

Four areas of particular concern need to be highlighted:

Redundancy and unsustainability

Redundancy and unsustainability are frequently built centrally into the digital technology business model. At least three key issues can be noted here:

  • Most of the sector is based on the fundamental concept of replacement rather than repair. Those old enough will remember fixed line telephones that lasted virtually for ever.  Now, many people replace their mobile phones at least every two years.  New models come out; new fashions are promoted.  To be sure there is a growing mobile phone and digital repair sector emerging in many poorer countries, but the fundamental business model across the sector is based on innovation to attract people to buy the latest new technology, rather than to build technology that can be re-used.  Initiatives, such as Restart,[ii] are thus incredibly important in trying to change the mentality of consumers, and thereby companies and governments.  They note that: the average mobile creates 55 kilograms of carbon emissions in manufacture, equal to 26 weeks of laundry; 1.9 billion mobile phones were projected to be sold in 2018, and their total carbon footprint in manufacture was at least equal to the Philippines’ annual carbon emissions, a country of over 100 million people; if we used every phone sold this year for 1/3 longer, we would prevent carbon emissions equal to Ireland’s annual emissions.[iii] Yet, many digital companies, especially Apple, have for a long time fought against enabling consumers to repair their own devices or have them repaired more cheaply elsewhere.[iv]
  • The hardware-software development cycle forces users to upgrade their equipment on a regular basis. Innovation in the digital technology sector means that hardware developments often make old software unusable on newer devices, and new software (particularly operating systems) requires newer hardware on which to run.  Inevitably, the consumer has to pay more to replace equipment or hardware with which they were previously perfectly happy.  Not only does this increase the profits to the companies at the expense of consumers, but it also leads to massive redundancy with older equipment frequently simply being thrown away.  This is scarcely sustainable.Computer waste in Starehe Boys' School, Nairobi in the early 2000s
  • The net effect is that despite efforts to recycle digital technology, e-Waste remains a fundamental problem for the sector. Much e-waste contains concentrated amounts of potentially harmful products, and this shows little sign of abating.  In 2014 41.8 million tons of discarded electrical and electronic waste was produced, which represented some US$ 52 billion of potentially reusable resources, little of which was collected for recycling.[v] Reports in 2019 suggested that there were currently just under 50 million tonnes of e-waste, with only 20% of it being dealt with appropriately.[vi]  In recent years a substantial trade has developed whereby poorer countries of the world have become dumps for such waste, with severe environmental damage resulting.[vii] Whilst waste-processing communities such as Guiyu in China[viii] have developed to gain economic benefit from e-waste, and recycling can help provide a partial solution for many materials, the fundamental point remains that the sector as a whole is built on a model that generates very substantial waste, rather than one that is focused inherently on sustainability.[ix]

Mobiles

Digital technologies are one of the main reasons for rising global electricity demand.

Digital technology, almost by definition, must have electricity to function, and as industry and society become increasingly dependent on electricity for production, exchange and consumption, the demand for electricity continues to rise.  Moreover, most electricity production globally is currently generated by coal-fired power stations, which has led authors such as Lozano to claim that “The Internet is the largest coal-fired machine on the planet”.[x]  Four interconnected examples can be given of the scale of this environmental impact.

  • As noted briefly above, much more electricity is often consumed in manufacturing digital devices than in their everyday use. A startling report by Smil in 2016 thus noted that in 2015 all the cars produced in the world weighed more than 180 times the weight of all portable electronic equipment made that year, but only used 7 times the amount of energy in their production.[xi]
  • The overall demand for electricity from the digital technology sector is growing rapidly. Smil goes on to note that ICT networks used about 5% of the world’s electricity in 2012, and this is predicted to rise to 10% by 2020,[xii] and to 20% by 2025.[xiii] Most measures of electricity demand focus on the direct uses of digital technology, such as powering servers, equipment and charging mobile devices (phones, tablets, and laptops), but indirect demand must also be recognised, notably the air-conditioning required to reduce the temperature of places running digital technology. The heat generated by such technologies is also actually an indication of their inefficiency.[xiv]  For example, two-thirds of the power used by mobile base stations is wasted as heat.[xv] If digital technologies were designed to use energy more efficiently, rather than as something to be wasted, then this dramatic increase might be somewhat curtailed.  However, the increased emphasis on data storage, management and analysis, and the ever-growing demand for data-streaming, does not seem likely to fall in the foreseeable future, and thus much more energy efficient systems need to be put in place to manage these processes.[xvi]
  • Specific new technologies, notably blockchain, have been developed with little regard for their electricity demand and thus their environmental impact. The dramatic impact that blockchain has on electricity demand is now beginning to be more widely realised.[xvii]  For example, in 2017 the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.  Currently at the start of 2020, Bitcoin alone has a carbon footprint of 34.73 Mt CO2 (equivalent to the carbon footprint of Denmark), it consumes 73.12 TWh of electrical energy (comparable to the power consumption of Austria), and it produces 10.95 kt of e-waste (equivalent to that of Luxembourg).[xviii]  The demand is simply driven by the design of Bitcoin technology which relies on miners frequently adding new sets of transactions to its blockchain, and then all miners confirming that transactions are indeed valid through the proof-of work algorithm.  The machines that do this require huge amounts of energy to do so.  Those who like to argue that blockchain more generally can contribute positively to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, usually fail to recognise that such technology systems are inherently very demanding of energy and can scarcely be called sustainable themselves.
  • Future projections relating to Smart Cities, 5G and the Internet of Things give rise to additional concerns over energy demand. There is much uncertainty about the environmental costs and benefits of upcoming developments in digital technology, and some efforts are indeed being made to reduce the rate of increase of energy demands. In the case of 5G, for example, the necessary denser networks will place much heavier demands on electricity unless more energy efficient technologies are put in place.[xix]  Likewise, the massive roll-out of the Internet of Things has the potential dramatically to increase energy use, not least through the management of the vast amount of data that will be produced.  Yet there are advocates who also argue that the use of these technologies will actually enable more efficient systems to be introduced.[xx]  On balance, it is certain that most of these new technologies will themselves generate greater electricity demand, but only likely or possible that systems will be introduced to mitigate such increases.  There needs to be a fundamental shift so that those designing new digital technologies in the future do so primarily based on environmental considerations.  An alternative might be for governments and regulators across the world to start now by imposing very substantial penalties on technology developers who fail to do so.

Exploitation of the environment

The exploitation of many rare minerals is unsustainable environmentally and frequently based on labour practices that many see as lacking moral integrity. Two aspects are important here.

  • First, most digital technologies rely on rare minerals that are becoming increasingly scarce. Many people are unaware, for example, that a mobile phone contains more than a third of the elements in the Periodic Table.[xxi]  Minerals such as Cobalt, the 17 rare earth elements, Gallium, Indium and Tungsten are becoming more and more in demand, and as supply is limited prices have often increased significantly.  They can also fluctuate dramatically.  Above all, as these minerals become depleted, new technological solutions will be needed to replace them.
  • Second, though, the actual exploitation of such resources is often hugely environmentally damaging, and the use of child labour is considered by many as being unacceptable[xxii] – yet such people still buy phones! Mine tailings, open cast mining methods, and waste spillages are all commonplace.  Violence and conflict over ownership of the resources is also widespread, as are the negative health implications of many of the mining methods.  Similarly, frequent reports highlight the plight of children exploited in mining the minerals necessary for digital technologies, particularly so in the Democratic Republic of Congo.[xxiii]

Direct impacts on “Climate Change” and the environment

Finally, all of these issues have varying extents of direct impact on “Climate Change” and the environment. Often this is not immediately apparent, and frequently this impact is difficult to measure, since it involves weighing up different priorities.  It is here, though, that the “carbon fetish” associated with “Climate Change” referred to in Part I, is so damaging.  Moreover, the general perception that new digital technologies are somehow “good” and “green”, and that objects such as smartphones are somehow inherently beautiful, beguiles many consumers into believing that they cannot possibly harm the environment.  This section thus points to four areas where digital technologies do have a direct impact on the environment.

Tower

  • The carbon impact of the digital technology sector is considerably more than most people appreciate.[xxiv] It has been estimated, for example, that the ICT sector emits about 2% of global CO2 emissions, and has now surpassed the airline industry in terms of the levels of its impact.[xxv]  Others suggest that the digital sector will emit as much as 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.  A recent headline catching comparison is that it has been estimated that the watching of pornographic videos generates as much CO2 as is emitted in countries such as Belgium, Bangladesh and Nigeria.[xxvi]  Given the global fetish around the significance of carbon, these figures should be a wake-up call, and indeed there is at last some increased attention being paid to trying to use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels to supply electricity to large elements of the digital technology sector, and especially data centres. Nevertheless, such shifts invariably cause other damaging environmental impacts as noted previously in Part I.
  • Whilst the adoption of renewable sources of energy would undoubtedly reduce the carbon impact of digital technologies, their negative side-effects must also be taken into consideration. As noted above in Part I, unanticipated consequences, as well as those that are clearly already known about, also need to be taken into account.   Moreover, the environmental impact of digital technologies is compounded by the enabling impacts that it has for even greater demands to be placed on electricity production.  For example, digital technologies are a crucial enabling element for smart motorways and self-driving electric cars.  Unless electricity for these cars and communication networks is produced from renewable sources the replacement of petrol and diesel cars by electric ones will have little impact on carbon emissions.  However, the shift to renewable production will lead to a very significant environmental impact through the construction of wind turbines and solar farms.  A 2017 report, for example, estimated that wind farms would need to cover the whole of Scotland to power Britain’s electric cars.[xxvii] Even if this is an exaggeration, it makes the point that there is indeed an environmental cost (not least in landscape impact) of such technologies.[xxviii]. Furthermore, many of these technologies are themselves not environmentally friendly.  Wind turbine blades, for example, cannot be recycled, and once they are no longer usable they are currently generally disposed of in landfill sites.
  • Mobile tower 2 CatalunyaThe impact of the large number of new cell towers and antennae that will be needed for 5G networks, as well as the buildings housing server farms and data centres also have a significant environmental impact. It is not just the electricity demands for cooling that matter, but the sheer size of data farms also has a significant physical impact on the environment.[xxix]   The average data centre covers approximately 100,000 sq ft of ground, but the largest noted in 2018 was at Langfan in China and covered some 6.3 million sq ft (which is equivalent to the size of the Pentagon in the USA).[xxx] Furthermore, uncertainties over the health impact of new 5G networks have led to serious concerns among some scientists, as with the 5G appeal to the EU signed by a group of 268 (as of December 2019) scientists and doctors concerned about the impact of RF-EMF, especially with the higher frequency wavelengths being used in the 5G roll-out at high densities in urban areas.[xxxi]  Whilst a majority of those involved in developing and installing such networks do not share these concerns, it is interesting that they have indeed gained some traction.[xxxii]
  • A final very important, but frequently ignored, environmental impact is the proliferation of satellites in space. Far too often, space is seen as having no relevance for environmental matters, rather like the oceans were once considered, but in reality space pollution is of very important significance.  The environmental impact of rockets that launch satellites into space has until recently scarcely been considered.  As noted in a commentary in 2017, “Nobody knows the extent to which rocket launches and re-entering space debris affect the Earth’s atmosphere”.[xxxiii]  The increasing problem of space congestion, though, is indeed now beginning to be taken seriously.  As of January 2019, it was estimated that there have been about 8950 satellites launched into space of which around 5000 were still in space, with only 1950 still functioning.[xxxiv]  The debris from satellites is potentially very hazardous, because every object of a reasonable size from a disintegrating satellite is potentially able to destroy another satellite.  The European Space Agency estimates that there are 34,000 objects >10 cm, 900,000 objects <10 cm and > 1 cm, and 128 million objects <1 cm and > 1mm currently in orbit.

This second part of the trilogy of posts on digital technologies and climate change has argued that the digital technology sector is very largely based on business models that have been designed specifically to be unsustainable.  Moreover, these technologies and their use have very significant impact both on the environment in general and also on the constituents of the Earth’s climate.  As these technologies become used much more widely their negative impacts will increase.

In concluding Part II, it is interesting to conjecture over the extent to which this has been a deliberate process by those involved in conceptualising, designing and selling these technologies, or whether more generously it is an unintended consequence of actions by people who simply did not know what they were doing with respect to the environment.  Digital technologies in many ways separate people from the physical environments in which they live.  This reaches its most extreme form in Virtual Reality, but every aspect of digital technology changes human experiences of the physical world.  Opening the envelope containing a letter is thus very different from opening an e-mail; receiving a digital hug is very different from receiving a physical hug from someone.  I cannot help but wonder whether digital technologies, by increasingly separating us from the “real world” physical environment of which we have traditionally been a part, actually also serve to prevent us from really seeing the environmental damage that they are causing.  It is as if these technologies are themselves preventing humans from understanding their environmental implications.  Someone living in a their own virtual reality in a smart home in a smart city bubble, being moved around in autonomous smart vehicles when required, and communicating at a distance with everyone, will perhaps no longer mind about the despoliation of hillsides, the flooding of valleys, the carving out of canyons to feed the machines’ craving for minerals…

For the third part of this trilogy, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector

[Updated 13 July 2020]


[i] See for example, Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/; and Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU.

[ii] https://therestartproject.org/

[iii] https://therestartproject.org/the-global-footprint-of-mobiles/

[iv] See for example https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/3/18761691/right-to-repair-computers-phones-car-mechanics-apple. Although increasing legislation is beginning to have an impact, and Apple did announce a shift of emphasis in late 2019 to make repair easier – https://www.circularonline.co.uk/news/apple-announces-out-of-warranty-iphone-repair-programme/.   The EU also passed significant legislation in late 2019 that emphasised the need for the “right to repair”, and included it in their Ecodesign Framework – https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[v] See https://unu.edu/news/news/ewaste-2014-unu-report.html

[vi] https://www.weforum.org/reports/a-new-circular-vision-for-electronics-time-for-a-global-reboot

[vii] Frazzoli, C., Orisakwe, O.E., Dragone, R. and Mantovani, A. (2010). Diagnostic health risk assessment of electronic waste on the general population in developing countries’ scenarios. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30: 388-399.

[viii] See for example http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/electronic-waste-guiyu-city-under-change

[ix] Note that the UN’s STEP (Solving The E-waste Problem) initiative is one attempt to address these issues at a global scale, although it is as yet having little impact.

[x] Lozano, K. (2019) Can the Internet survive Climate Change?, The New Republic, 18 Dedcemebr 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/155993/can-internet-survive-climate-change

[xi] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xii] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xiii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/11/tsunami-of-data-could-consume-fifth-global-electricity-by-2025; see also BBC, Why your internet habuits are not as clean as you think, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

[xiv] For an early paper, see Carroll, A. and Heiser, G. (2010) An analysis of power consumption in a smartphone, USENIXATC’10: Proceedings of the 2010 USENIX conference on USENIX annual technical conference June 2010

[xv] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/10/energy-consumption-behind-smart-phone

[xvi] Jones, N. (2018) How to stop data centre from gobbling up the world’s electricity, Nature, 13 September 2018.

[xvii] An interesting alternative model is provided by Holochain, https://holochain.org/

[xviii] See the excellent work and graphics by Digiconomiost at https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption

[xix] See Frenger, P. and Tano, R. (2019) A technical look at 5G energy consumption and performance, Ericsson Blog, but note that this is published by a corporation with deep vested interests in showing that impacts of 5G are not likely to be severe; see also https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-5g-means-energy and https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/telecom/wireless/will-increased-energy-consumption-be-the-achilles-heel-of-5g-networks

[xx] See for example https://www.digiteum.com/internet-of-things-energy-management

[xxi] Jones, H. (2018) Technology is making these rare elements among the most valuable on earth, World Economic Forum.

[xxii] See, for example, https://en.reset.org/knowledge/ecological-impact-mobile-phones, https://phys.org/news/2018-08-ways-smartphone-environment.html, and https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/your-phone-really-smart

[xxiii] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/12/phone-misery-children-congo-cobalt-mines-drc

[xxiv] For a useful infographic, see https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/; see also https://www.lovefone.co.uk/blogs/news/how-much-co2-does-it-take-to-make-a-smartphone.  Recently the ITU, GeSI, GSMA and SBTi announced on 27 February 2020 a new “science-based” pathway in line with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement for the ICT industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, but as with so many other initiatives this focus primarily on carbon emissions, and fails to grapple with the wider environmental impact of the tech sector.  See https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/PR04-2020-ICT-industry-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-45-percent-by-2030.aspxhttps://www.itu.int/ITU-T/recommendations/rec.aspx?rec=14084, and https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Documents/Documents/GSMA_IP_SBT-report_WEB-SINGLE.pdf,

[xxv] See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/17/internet-climate-carbon-footprint-data-centres ; see also https://www.dw.com/en/is-netflix-bad-for-the-environment-how-streaming-video-contributes-to-climate-change/a-49556716

[xxvi] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2209569-streaming-online-pornography-produces-as-much-co2-as-belgium/

[xxvii] https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/10/30/16000-additional-wind-turbines-required-to-power-british-electric-car-fleet/

[xxviii] Likewise, there are many other very direct impacts on the environment.  Elon Musk, for example, is reported to be planning to cut down at least 220 acres of forest in Germany by the end of March 2020, in preparation for building a large new factory to produce 500,000 new electric cars a year (The Times, “Musk taxes axe to forest as factory plans accelerate”, 13 January 2020, p.35; see also https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-forest-endangered-bats-gigafactory-4/)

[xxix] https://www.colocationamerica.com/blog/data-center-environmental-impacts

[xxx] https://www.datacenters.com/news/and-the-title-of-the-largest-data-center-in-the-world-and-largest-data-center-in

[xxxi] https://www.5gappeal.eu/

[xxxii] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48616174

[xxxiii] David, L. (2017) Spaceflight pollution, Space.com, https://www.space.com/38884-rocket-exhaust-space-junk-pollution.html

[xxxiv] European Space Agency data https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers.   For a recently reported near miss when two non-operational satellites came very close to each other (possibly within 12 m) over Pensylvania in the USA on 30 January 2020, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-51299638.  More recently still, the dramatic increase in satellite swarms as a result of constellations of small satellites being launched https://slate.com/technology/2019/12/space-satellite-constellations-spacex-starlink-junk.html, as with Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, is now receiving further criticism from those complaining about space pollution, not least from a visual perspective in the nighths sky.  See for example https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/24/21190273/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-constellation-astronomy-coating.  In January 2021 a new “record” was set when 143 satellites were launched into orbit by a single SpaceX Falcon rocket https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55775977.

Updated 24th January 2021

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part I: Climate change is not the problem; we are

This is the first part of a trilogy of posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change, and suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned.  At least six key issues need to be addressed with respect to the “climate change” mantra in the context of its linkages with digital technologies.

Panorama Jolly Harbour Bay

“Climate Change” is a result of many variables and is not per se a cause of anything.

Language matters. Saying, for example, that “Climate Change is causing drought and famine” is meaningless.  The term “Climate Change” is just a description of what is happening; it has no actual causal power.  It is thus changes in rainfall patterns, the uses made of water, changes in population distribution and many other factors that actually cause drought.  Although it is a surrogate collective term for many such underlying factors that are causing changes in the relationships between people and the physical environment, “Climate Change” has itself been given enormous “power” of its own in the popular imagination.  In part, this is because the term serves the interests of all those promoting its use,[i] and detracts from the fundamental changes that need to be made.  Focusing on “Climate Change” actually hinders people from considering the real underlying factors that are causing such changes, which are most notably aspects of human behaviour such as the pursuit of individual greed rather than communal well-being.  Not least, these include the rapid spread in the use and spread of digital technologies.

It is essential to differentiate between (a) the impacts of humans on climate change and (b) the natural changes that influence the world’s climate.

Climate has always changed.  There is nothing new in this.[ii]  As long as humans have lived on planet Earth they have had an influence on its climate.  What has changed is that there are now many more people alive, and they are having a much greater impact on the climate, over and above the “natural” changes taking place.  The pace of change has undoubtedly increased rapidly.  The popular, but erroneous, belief that it is actually possible to combine “development” with environmental sustainability[iii] considerably exacerbates matters and has meant that more and more people aspire to greater material benefits at lower financial cost than ever before.  Population pressure, foreseen long ago in the late 18th century work of Thomas Malthus, and highlighted in the more recent work of the Club of Rome[iv] in the 1970s with its publication of The Limits to Growth,[v] is one of the root cause of human induced climate change.  Yet far too little emphasis is being placed on this.  Somehow, it seems “right” that we can continue to prolong life, often through enhanced interfaces with digital technologies,[vi] and thereby place even more pressure on the world’s limited environmental “resources”.  Whilst there have been many valid criticisms of such arguments, and economic developments in the 20th century did indeed suggest that such limits could continuously be overcome, Malthus’s positive checks of hunger, disease and war remain all too relevant in the 21st  While many people fear the prospects of a new plague, horrendous famines or devastating global wars, these may well actually remain the ultimate safety valves through which the human species may survive and rebuild a better balance with the environment (of which climate is an integral part; see below).

Humans want to be in control.

Part of the problem with the notion of “Climate Change” as applied primarily to human-induced climate change is that it implies that humans have caused climate change and so can therefore reverse it, if only they had the will and knowhow to do so. Such a notion of “Climate Change” is thus part of the underlying belief system that humans control the “natural environment”, rather than being part of it.  This is related to the much wider debate over the dichotomy between the “mental” and the “physical”, the “spiritual” and the “material”, that has lain at the heart of geography since long before its foundation as an academic discipline.[vii]  Humans today are thus always shocked by so-called ”natural disasters”, such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, when their control is shown to be powerless in the face of the forces of the physical world.  Ultimately, humans are not actually more powerful than, or separate from, the forces of nature.  Yet, advocates of the use of digital technologies to control nature perpetuate the myth that “we” can indeed increasingly be in control.

It is very dangerous to separate “climate” as being somehow distinct from other aspects of the environment in which we live.

The increased rhetoric and activism over “Climate Change” is overshadowing the important wider environmental issues of which it is but a part.  This is highlighted for example, in contexts as diverse as Extinction Rebellion’s dominant slogan “We are facing an unprecedented global climate emergency”,[viii] and the UN Secretary General’s continued emphasis that we must all “confront the world’s climate emergency”.[ix] It is fascinating to see how entities as diverse as these persist in using the word “climate”, rather than “environmental”.  Yet climate change is but a part of the wider changes that are taking place as a result of human exploitation of the limited physical environment in which we live.  Climate must therefore be understood within the holistic context of that wider environment rather than as a separate entity; climate is no more important than the destruction of vegetation, or despoliation of soils, or plastic pollution of the oceans, or even the use of outer space as a satellite graveyard.  If there is one lesson we are beginning to learn it is that all of these are integrally connected within a global ecosystem that must be understood holistically.  “Climate’s” domination of both activism and policy-making suggests that this agenda is being driven by a particular set of interests that are able to benefit from such a focus on climate alone.

The carbon fetish.

One of these interest groups is those involved in carbon trading, who have been able to generate significant profits from so doing.[x]  As the European Environment Agency notes, “Despite fewer EU emission allowances (EUAs) being auctioned in 2018 than in 2017, revenue from auctions increased from EUR 5.5 billion to EUR 14.1 billion”.[xi]  Carbon emissions in the form of CO2 have undoubtedly had a significant impact on global temperatures, and yet the overwhelming focus explicitly on carbon has meant that other damaging environmental changes have been relatively ignored.  A classic example of this was the promotion of diesel cars following the 1997 Kyoto Protocol because they produced lower CO2 emissions than did petrol cars.  Only later was it realised that the NOx and particulate matter emissions from diesel vehicles, caused other damage to the environment and human health.[xii] Likewise, the shift to so-called “renewable” sources of energy, such as wind turbines, in order to reduce carbon emissions, has also led to an increase in the use of Sulphur Hexofluoride (SF6), which is used across the electricity sector to prevent short circuits and fires, but has the highest global warming potential of any known substance.[xiii] Demonising carbon has thus often led to the introduction of different, and sometimes even more damaging, alternatives.  The carbon fetish has also meant that the digital technology sector has focused very substantially on showing how it can reduce its carbon imprint, and thus be seen as being “green” or environmentally friendly,[xiv] whilst actually continuing to have very significant negative environmental impacts in other ways.  The dramatically increased emphasis on non-carbon sources of electricity has likewise caused very significant landscape change across the world through the introduction of solar farms, wind turbines and huge dams for hydroelectric plants.  These landscape changes are difficult to quantify in monetary terms, but need to be taken into consideration in any rigorous evaluation of the environmental impact of digital technologies.  Moreover, much of this technology is itself not particularly renewable.  Wind turbine blades, for example, have to be disposed of in landfill sites once they reach the end of their usable lives.  Likewise, despite solar panels being largey recylable, they too give rise to potentially high levels of waste.  It has been estimated that unless effective recycling processes are put in place there could be 60 million tons of PV panels waste in landfill sites by the 2050Moreover, a recent report by UK FIRES notes that it is important to respond urgently to change using today’s technologies, because so-called breakthrough technologies cannot be relied on to meet the 2050 zero-carbon targets.Turbines in Catalunya

The positive aspects of climate change.

Humans have always responded to changes in long term weather patterns and thus climate change in the past.  Substantial migrations, changes in trade routes, and the settlement of previously uninhabited areas were all commonplace occurrences in antiquity and prehistoric times.[xv]  Yet, the construction of powerful nation states and increasingly fixed national borders have tended to limit the ease with which migration, or forced settlement, can happen.  Indeed, it has often been said that the free movement of people across the earth is the one human right for which we are not ready.[xvi]  The impact of processes associated with climate change, such as sea-level rise and changing weather patterns, is in part fundamentally tied up with this notion of movement.  Theoretically, if people were able (and willing) to move freely from increasingly hazardous environments to ones that were more amenable, they could travel across the world seeking (or competing for) access to the most propitious places in which to live.  Farmers in low-lying countries flooded out by sea-level change could, for example, move to areas suitable for grain production and pasture that were once on the margins of frozen tundra.[xvii]  Clearly, there are huge political, social and cultural issues to be addressed with such suggestions, but the key point in raising them is to emphasise that there can be positive as well as negative impacts of so-called “Climate Change”.  Indeed, these are readily apparent at a more mundane level.  Already, Champagne producers are investing in vineyards in England, as they seek to mitigate the impact of changes in weather patterns in northern France.[xviii]  Likewise, the amount of energy used to heat buildings in areas of the world that were previously colder in winter has now declined.  This is not in any way to deny the scale, rapidity and significance of the changes the combine to influence “Climate Change”, but it is to argue that they need again to be seen in a holistic way, and not purely as being negative.

 

In summary, this section has suggested that we need to focus on the root causes of the phenomena contributing to changes in weather patterns and to treat these holistically as part of the wider impact that increasing numbers of humans are having on the physical environment.  Human behaviours are creating these environmental changes rather than an exogenous force called “Climate Change”.  Only when we address these human behaviours will we begin to start creating a more sustainable and vibrant ecosystem in which our children and grandchildren can thrive.  This will require fundamentally different ways of living that most people currently seem unwilling to accept.[xix]  Not least, there needs to be a qualitative shift away from more individualistic, greed-led selfish agendas, to more communal and collaborative ones.  Whilst it is very frequently claimed that digital technologies can indeed help to deliver the so-called Sustainable Development Goals and mitigate the climate crisis, the next section argues that the design and use of these very technologies lie at the heart of the environmental challenges caused by the social and economic systems created by a few rich and powerful humans.

 

For the second part of this triology, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals


[i] For a brief discussion of these interests (including those of scientists working in the field, who have actually been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the climate change mantra in terms of research grants and prestige) see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/problems-with-the-climate-change-mantra/

[ii] Much could be written about this, not least concerning the increasing resolution and accuracy with which we measure contemporary changes in climatic variables, in contrast to the necessity to rely on surrogate measures in the past.

[iii] Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/

[iv] History of the Club of Rome, https://www.clubofrome.org/about-us/history/

[v] Meadows et al. (1972)The Limits to Growth, Universe Books,  https://www.clubofrome.org/report/the-limits-to-growth/

[vi] See, for example, the research and development being undertaken by Calico https://www.calicolabs.com/, and Elon Musk’s launching of Neuralink https://www.neuralink.com/

[vii] See Unwin, T, (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman.  The belief systems of many indigenous peoples across the world are very different from those derived from European cultures.  Australian aborigines, for example, see themselves very much as being part of nature; the “country” includes them, rather than humans owning the land.

[viii] See for example https://www.xrebellion.nyc/events/heading-for-extinction-and-what-to-do-about-it-8619-darwz-wm6aw-kjakr-e9k6j-7k2pz-4y8gz-py5cy, https://www.brightest.io/cause/extinction-rebellion/, or https://politicalemails.org/organizations/648

[ix] As for example in November 2019 at the ASEAN-UN Summit https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1050501

[x] David Sheppard in The Financial Times thus commented in 2018 that “A select group of specialist traders at hedge funds and investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are churning bumper profits from a once niche commodity that has risen phoenix-like from a decade-long slump. Carbon credits, introduced by the EU to curb pollution by companies in the trading bloc, have soared almost fourfold in the past year to above €20 per tonne of CO2, following legislative changes designed to get the scheme working…”

[xi] European Environment Agency (2019) The EU Emissions Trading System in 2019: trends and projections, https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/the-eu-emissions-trading-system/at_download/file

[xii] https://www.theengineer.co.uk/fact-check-are-diesel-cars-really-more-polluting-than-petrol-cars/

[xiii] McGrath, M. (2019) Climate change: Electrical industry’s ‘dirty secret’ boosts warming, BBC News 13 Sept 2019, and for a defence from the wind sector see https://windeurope.org/newsroom/news/wind-energy-and-sf6-in-perspective/

[xiv] Typified by the work of GeSI in developing a methodology to assess carbon reducing impacts of ICTs http://www.gesi.org/research/evaluating-the-carbon-reducing-impacts-of-ict-an-assessment-methodology.

[xv] See, for example, Yang, L.E., Bork, H-R, Fang, X. and Mischke, E. (eds) (2018) Socio-Environmental Dynamics along the Historical Silk Road, Cham: Springer Nature; Pappas, S. (2012) Wet climate may have fuelled Mongol invasion, LiveScience, July 2012; Fleming, S. (2019) Climate change helped destroy these four ancient civilisations, World Economic Forum, March 2019; What drove ancient human migration? Climate Change via NPR, Re-imagining migration.

[xvi] Nett, R. (1971) The civil right we are not ready for: the right of free movement of people on the face of the earth, Ethics, 81(3), 212-27.

[xvii] Nobel, J. (2013) Farming in the Arctic: it can be done, Modern Farmer, October 2013.

[xviii] Smithers, R. (2017) French champagne house Taittinger plants first vines in English soil, The Guardian, May 2017.

[xix] One such radical example would be the eradication of pets.  The impact of meat consumption on “Climate Change” has recently been widely publicised following the IPCC special report on climate change and land in 2019.  Its emphasis on the need for a substantial reduction in meat consumption was interpreted by many as being a call for people across the world to eat less meat.  This, in turn, has supported the Vegan food industry, and those advocating Veganuary as a New Year’s Resolution that can help save the planet.  A radical alternative, though, would be to prevent people from keeping pets such as cats and dogs, or at least to regulate the pet-food industry so that it only supplied vegetarian food.  Pets are estimated to eat 20% of the world’s meat and fish, and are thus responsible for a fifth of the environmental impact that this causes; likewise, it has been reported that a quarter of the environmental impact of meat production apparently comes from the pet-food industry.[xix]  Although these estimates seem to be largely based on data from the richer countries of the world, eliminating all pets would be an easy way of dramatically cutting the impact of humans on climate change.  Yet this is not something that most people are willing to consider.  The 874 page IPCC report does not mention pets or the pet-food industry once.

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Digital technologies and climate change

The claim that the use of digital technologies is a solution for the problems of “climate change” and environmental sustainability is fundamentally flawed.[i] The creation of such technologies, and the interests that underlie their design and sale, are part of the problem rather than the solution.  An independent, comprehensive and holistic review of the environmental impact of such technologies therefore urgently needs to be undertaken.

A farm near Tartu in Estonia in the mid-1990s

This reflection brings together some of my previous comments on digital technologies and environmental change that have been scattered across different publications.[ii] It focuses on three main arguments, each addressed in a separate post:

  • Part I suggests that “Climate change” is a deeply problematic concept. Its widespread use, and the popular rhetoric surrounding it, may well be doing more harm than good as far as the environment is concerned
  • Part II argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.
  • Part III proposes that there is consequently an urgent need for a comprehensive and holistic audit of the impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Lest I be misunderstood in the arguments that follow, I believe passionately in the need for wise human guardianship of the environment in which we live.  Some of my previous research as a geographer[iii] has explicitly addressed issues commonly associated with “climate change”, and I have no doubt that humans are indeed influencing weather patterns across the globe.  However, “climate change” per se is not the problem.  Instead the problem is the behaviour of humans, and especially those in the richer countries of the world who wish to maintain their opulent lifestyles, not least through using the latest digital technologies.  “Climate change” is but a subset of wider and more fundamental issues concerned with the interactions between people and the environment.[iv]  Focusing simply on “climate change” takes our eyes off the most important problems.


[i] Typical of such claims is Ekholm, B. and Rockström, J. (2019) Digital technology can cut global emissions by 15%.  Here’s how, World Economic Forum.

[ii] See Unwin, T. (1992) The Place of Geography, Harlow: Longman; Owen, L. and Unwin, T. (eds) (1997) Environmental Management: Readings and Case Studies, Oxford: Blackwell; Unwin, T. (ed.) (2009) ICT4D: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Cambridge: CUP; Unwin, T. (2010) Problems with the climate change mantra, 27 Jan 2010; Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71; Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming information and communication technologies for Development, Oxford: OUP.

[iii] See references above in footnote 2.

[iv] The interactions between people and the environment have long been part of the domain of Geography, and this reflection is thus largely constructed through a geographer’s lens (see footnote 2: Unwin, 1992)

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