Digital technology permeates our daily lives. Between smartphones, laptops, tablets, and TV sets, the French find it hard to take their eyes off their screens. On average, there are eight devices per user. Digital technologies give the impression of being immaterial, impalpable, and highly virtual. Nevertheless, the pollution these devices generate is very real.

Multiplying the connected devices’ weight by almost sixteen helps understand the amount of pollution they cause. Said devices consume almost five times more natural resources than the French car fleet. Digital pollution is estimated to be equivalent to global automobile traffic in 2025.

What is more, a study by the French Senate’s information mission on the environmental footprint of digital technology concluded that in 2018, digital technology accounted for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 4.2% of global primary energy consumption. By 2022, this impact will have risen to 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 10% of global electricity consumption. Finally, the study estimates that digital emissions could reach 6.7% of France’s emissions in 2040 if no public policy of digital sobriety is deployed.

The continuing growth in these figures reflects overequipment and the steady rise in usage. These GHG emissions are produced by three different major IT technologies. On the highest step of the podium, and by far, terminals generate 80% of digital-related GHGs. Then come data centers (15%) and, in third place, networks (5%).

Looking more closely at the life cycle of IT equipment, the manufacturing and distribution phase (known as the “upstream” phase) is the most carbon-intensive, with an impact five times greater than the “use” phase.

The manufacturing phase accounts for 79% of the equipment’s carbon footprint.

This is due firstly to the fossil fuel-intensive operations involved (such as the extraction of raw materials), and secondly to the fact that these materials are imported from countries in South-East Asia, Africa, and South America. This phase therefore weighs heavily on all natural resources. This “ecological rucksack of a digital object”, the set of natural resources required to manufacture a product, encompasses: the quantity of materials extracted, the oil and water used.

On average, electrical appliances use 50 to 350 times their weight in raw materials. This represents 600kg for a laptop, 200 to 250kg for a smartphone, 1 to 3 tons for a desktop computer and 500kg for an internet box.

The life-cycle energy consumption of a computer used for 3 years is 4,222 kWh. Only 34% of a computer’s life-cycle energy consumption therefore occurs during the three-year use phase. The energy cost of the manufacturing phase is particularly high, due to the high energy costs of semiconductors and the short duration of the use phase.

In addition, once equipment has reached the end of its life, WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) treatment is recommended. According to the experts at WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), although most of the materials contained in these devices are recyclable and reusable, less than 20% of the world’s digital waste collected is recycled. The result is an accumulation of waste, growing digital pollution and health risks.

Between 2015 and 2020, the quantity of electrical waste grew three times faster than the human population.

In response to these issues, the French government recently launched a call for “Eco-responsible digital” projects, aimed at supporting initiatives that promote the transition to a more environmentally friendly digital environment, and help to bring about an innovative, circular, eco-responsible, competitive, and sovereign digital economy.

Eco-responsible digital projects are aimed at companies, associations, local authorities, and research laboratories proposing innovative projects in the field of eco-responsible digital technology.

Eligible projects may concern various aspects of eco-responsible digital technology, such as: reducing the energy consumption of digital infrastructures, eco-design of digital products and services, responsible data management, and raising awareness and educating people about the environmental challenges of digital technology.

This strategy is based on four main lines of action:

– Developing knowledge of the environmental footprint of digital products and services and supporting research into eco-design and sobriety of digital solutions.

– Encourage innovation for a circular economy in the digital sector, to make France a leader in eco-design, sobriety and extending the lifespan of digital solutions.

– The creation of initial and continuing training courses in digital responsibility.

– Raising awareness and supporting the various players involved in eco-responsible digital transformation.

It remains to be seen whether all the projects selected will rise to the challenge of the carbon and ecological impact of digital technology.

An article by Raja TRABELSI – PhD in carbon and environmental impact – SAASWEDO.

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