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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.

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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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