Global digitalisation is growing, estimated to reach USD2.4 trillion by 2024 from 2019-level, but experts warned of its carbon footprint, adding that there are useful lessons for Co2-proponent in India, where going digital is in full swing.
Digitalisation clearly has streamlined existing processes, transformed many industries and is widely seen as a major bridge towards a new carbon-neutral world.
This dramatic shift to digital everywhere has been driven by an increased understanding of how the environment and climate changes can affect economic growth, asset values, and financial markets.
Experts have much to say on this issue. There is an urgent need to focus on ‘greening’ the digital chain itself, right from the design stage, according to Singapore-based tech-investor Girija Pande, who serves on the High-Level Advisory Board of Brussels-based DigitalGoes.
Green Foundation was set up to research, advocate and bring together industry, governments and consumer groups who are all keen to keep the exploding digital services green.
Pande underlined, “Sustainability war in India must be won byte by byte too!”
“The focus must be to make sure digital services are green by design while being created before embarking on widespread digitalisation as countries must carefully consider their impact on sustainability,” said Frederick Donck, President of DigitalGoes.Green Foundation.
While sustainability efforts have focused on digitalising traditional industries, the environmental impact of the Internet itself remains poorly addressed at a global level, Pande and Donck have pointed out on Thursday. Yet research shows this can be considerable, they added.
The Indian Government too like many others is rightly pushing for massive digitalisation as part of its ambitious
plan. Both Pande and Donck have struck a cautious note on digitalisation programs being planned across the globe, especially the accelerated pace of embracing Industry 4.0 for India which will entail high digital content.
India is also home to many global ICT companies and world-scale data centres which manage “back-room ICT” operations for many global corporations, noted Pande, also the Chairman of Apex Avalon Consulting in Singapore.
Tech-minded Indian youths and growing numbers of startups are another “big plus” factor for global technology groups to have a large scale R&D presence in India.
Nine in 10 people surveyed in India believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for digital skills in their organisation, according to a recent study commissioned by Singapore-based Salesforce. Consequently, the digital footprint of Indian businesses will increase substantially which could create a large carbon footprint if not planned carefully.
The experts pointed out that numerous studies from think tanks indicate that carbon emission of the Internet itself is nearly twice as much as the (pre-pandemic) airline industry and its annual water footprint is equal to one million Olympic swimming pools. Bitcoin mining activity is so carbon-intensive that even Elon Musk of Tesla had to warn of its sustainability challenge.
They elaborated that one single intervention in the design of YouTube video streaming services would enable emissions savings of up to 586 KtCO2e, with equivalent carbon savings as Google’s entire effort in the past five years to change to 100% renewables. Besides, Video streaming services, other services such as roll out of 5G; massive build-up of Cloud; Online Ads; Gaming; Artificial Intelligence; Quantum Computing and Blockchain would offer similar benefits from a renewed emphasis on redesigning digital products and services which keep sustainability in mind.
Digital Industry has committed to minimising the use of their equipment that is required to run the Internet i.e., tangible equipment (such as data centres, servers and end-user terminals), or to use renewable energy wherever possible to minimise emissions.
However, this misses the intangibles like digital services which too have their own carbon footprints, said Donck. For example, demand for internet traffic, data and digital services, which represent the intangible part of the Internet, is expected to continue its exponential growth globally and is at least doubling every year.
Excluding this intangible part of the Internet would not only prevent an accurate assessment of the full environmental impact of the Internet but it will also deprive key stakeholders, the industry, investors and Governments, from accelerating their sustainability objectives, elaborated Pande.
Recognising that the digital economy is circular, DigitalGoes.Green works with every stakeholder involved in the financing, design, development, and deployment of digital services. In Europe, the Foundation’s objectives are aligned with the objectives of the European Commission for a Green Europe, particularly the EU Green Deal and Sustainable Finance.
The aim is to incentivise the digital industry to reach its sustainability targets by accelerating its existing efforts and offer businesses a competitive advantage while investing in eco-friendly and innovative digital services. Sustainability should be the new standard for investing and it can go hand in hand with the promises of an eco-responsible digital services sector.
“Finally, one should empower users to make informed choices and shift demand in the digital services market for sustainable digital services and help policymakers to navigate keeping sustainability in mind,” said Pande, who previously served as Asia Pacific President of Tata Consultancy Services out of Singapore.
Pande also cited an example of Singapore which has been leading the digital and environmental challenge in Asia under its Singapore Green Plan 2030. “It would be wise to focus on greening the digital chain itself, right from the beginning,” said Pande.