A recent study by the French Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME) and the French Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority (ARCEP) estimates that the share of CO2 emissions linked to digital technology in France is 2.5%. This figure is equivalent to the annual carbon impact of 12 million private cars, which is expected to increase in the coming years, given the increase in telecommunications usage. To combat this pollution, the usual recommendations focus mainly on the adoption of digital eco-gestures. But are these changes in individual behaviour really THE solution for moving the world towards greater sobriety?
An ecology of small gestures...
If the ecological emergency is a reality, the trial of online services in recent years does not seem to point the finger at the right culprit. Indeed, when we know that spam accounts for between 55 and 95% of email traffic*, why should the guilt of the environmental impact of digital technology be placed solely on Internet users, whether individuals or employees?
An email emits an average of 4g of CO2**, the same amount as 7 minutes of oral discussion between two individuals, and this only if it includes at least one attachment and is hosted on foreign servers, powered by fossil fuels such as coal. Encouraging citizens to reduce the number or length of emails they send is thus a perfectly meaningless measure, if not counterproductive: email is a more durable means of written communication than postal mail! Why blame certain technological developments, such as electronic signatures or the cloud, on the grounds that they emit CO2?
To really talk about the environmental impact of technologies, it is essential to also consider the CO2 savings generated by their use. Indeed, let's admit that we don't want to degrade our standard of living and comfort but that we only have at our disposal the technologies that existed in the 80's: what would be our level of CO2 emission then? Just by replacing our emails with paper mail - which includes the manufacture of paper and ink, transport and distribution - carbon consumption would already be multiplied.
Finally, the studies that condemn the impact of digital technology are mainly based on an average global level of electricity production. This same electricity is, for the most part, produced from hydrocarbons. Rather than encouraging consumers to send shorter emails, would it not be more effective to encourage the main players in online services, such as the GAFAMs, to host their services in countries, such as France, whose electricity production is largely decarbonised?
... undermined by the environmental footprint of crypto-assets
Could the real ecological sinkhole of digital technology be at the heart of one of the hottest topics of the moment, namely the crypto-currency industry? The activity of crypto-currency mining, because it uses the maximum power of the processors and the full capacity of the network 24 hours a day, is extremely energy intensive. Moreover, because of this intensive use, the wear rate of the equipment is much higher, resulting in a surplus of waste that is difficult to recycle.
Here on the other hand, the pollution caused by the production of crypto-currencies is not offset by a decrease in other sectors. Crypto-currencies are speculative games that have almost no application in real life.
All our activities, including digital ones, are sources of pollution. At a time when digital uses are booming, and there is much debate about the increase in their environmental footprints, the intrinsic question is whether these emissions are justified in terms of the benefits brought by a particular technology? While economists should be the only true judges of the potential of bitcoin and other crypto-currencies as sustainable alternatives to the traditional financial system, it is high time to go beyond the hype and question the real social utility of these highly speculative crypto-assets, relative to their energy and environmental costs!
* Signal Spam
** Carbon Literacy Project