Digital Sustainability: A Comprehensive Guide

Importance of Digital Sustainability:
Is Sustainability Rooted in Technology?

By Ana Yong

Modern living has availed to us an overabundance of opportunities and distractions in the form of products and services, many of which are provided through technological advancements like shopping on e-commerce platforms, ordering food using applications as well as securing transport by booking a cab online.

Having such ease at our fingertips, did you ever stop to wonder whether such technology is sustainable in the long run?

Part of a series on Electronic Waste. Visit the main article on E-Waste for futher reading.

What is Digital Sustainability (DS)?

Digital Sustainability involves technological transformation. It is defined by Mightybytes in their article “Digital Sustainability: How to Get Started Today” dated 18 January 2023 asthe process of applying social, economic, and environmental stewardship principles to digital products, services, and data delivered via the internet”. It is also a signal for manufacturers to supply software and hardware that are more resource efficient. In addition, technology can be used to improve sustainability.

The University of New South Wales, Sydney published an article called “Digital sustainability: technology solutions to climate change” dated 24 March 2022 stating that DS has a dual-role to play. Firstly, it is an enabler, that is, digital solutions can be used to solve problems and ‘fix’ things. Secondly, digital technology as a topic attracts a lot of interest and awareness of its uses and effects on the environment.

Hands holding a phone and fileing a football match at night
Source: Image by Firmbee from Pixabay

How Clean is Digital Technology and How does it Affect Climate Change?

The European Framework Initiative for Energy & Environmental Efficiency in the ICT Sector defines the ICT Carbon Footprint as “the amount of carbon generated by the Information and Communication Technology sector” where a carbon footprint is the full amount of greenhouse gas productions in the environment, generated by a particular activity by a person, event, institution or product and it is recorded as CO2e.

Note: CO2e is “the abbreviation for ‘carbon dioxide equivalent.’ CO2e is used to measure and compare emissions from greenhouse gases based on how severely they contribute to global warming”.

One ever-growing trend that is popular with people from all walks of life is the filming and posting of videos on the internet. The World Economic Forum’s article called “Climate change: Is video streaming pushing up harmful emissions?” dated 16 June 2021 predicted that there would be 5 billion mobile internet users by 2025. As these activities require electricity, there would be a swell in planet-warming gas discharges. Furthermore, demand for video streaming and gaming pursuits lead to more data centre services.

A diagram by Statista entitled “Information and communications technology sector carbon footprint share 2020, by product/segment” shows that the 2 largest culprits emitting the most greenhouse gases are data centers with 45% and communication networks with 24%.

Statistic: Information and communications technology sector carbon footprint share 2020, by product/segment | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Greenhouse gas emissions of ICT Sector worldwide forecast for 2020, by product type.
Data Source: Federica Larrichia, 14 Feb 2022.

From the infographic below by Climate Impact Partners, it is mentioned that the internet uses a vast amount of energy because of 2 reasons:

(1) Manufacturing and Shipping which comprises the production and transportation of hardware like laptops, mobile phones and servers.

(2) Powering and Cooling which require electricity generated from various sources like coal, natural gas and renewables.

In addition, every time we do a search on the internet, greenhouse gases are discharged as these searches necessitate the use of numerous servers.

The internet uses a huge amount of energy. This is due to Manufacture, shipping, powering, and cooling.
The Carbon Footprint of the Internet.
Source: Climate Impact Partners

An article named “Digital Technologies Are Part of the Climate Change Problem” by ICTworks dated 20 February 2020 stated the following ways in which technology impacts climate change:

1. Redundancy

Computer monitors, cases, and keyboards in a big pile of waste
Source: Image by INESby®CreamosValor from Pixabay

We are entrenched in a culture of replacement and not repair, therefore, when our digital devices are ‘too old’, we would go out and buy a replacement. Often, the device still functions but consumers want to ‘keep up with the times’ by having the latest digital products. This creates an excess of unused but perfectly working devices.

In addition, it could also be an occurrence of the Bandwagon Effect which is “a cognitive bias that causes people to think or act a certain way if they believe that others are doing the same”. Therefore, consumers may prefer a certain brand so when that brand releases their latest version of handphones, customers rush to get their hands on it.

2. Software Advancements and Hardware Upgrades

A landfill with some computer parts visible
Source: Image by vkingxl from Pixabay

Improvements in existing software forces one to purchase a newer gadget that can run on the latest software. Usually, the older model has no defects but is still thrown away. Again, adding to the already overflowing landfills.

3. Use of Technology Increases with Electricity Consumption

digital sustainability 8
Source: Image by Nicole Köhler from Pixabay

Depending on how the electricity is generated, for example, if it is produced by burning coal, then huge amounts of Carbon Dioxide would be released into the atmosphere. Thereby, aggravating climate change.

4. Ecological Exploitation

digital sustainability 9
Source: Image by shibang from Pixabay

The extraction of rare earth elements that are used in many digital devices greatly damages the ecology.

According to the American Geosciences Institute, rare earth elements (REEs) are “a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium”. These minerals are essential in more than 200 high-tech consumer digital products like mobile phones, computer hard drives, and electric and hybrid vehicles.

The infographic by Visual Capitalist below shows the types of REEs used in a smart phone. For example, the display component alone requires 6 REEs to function.

digital sustainability 10
Source: Visual Capitalist

Harvard International Review’s article entitled “Not So “Green” Technology: The Complicated Legacy of Rare Earth Mining” dated 12 August 2021 stated that demand for REEs could rise six-fold by 2040 while the requirement for Lithium and Cobalt could surge ten to twenty times by 2050 for electric cars.

Digitalisation Strategies of Various Countries

The World Economic Forum (WEF) stated that many Asia-Pacific nations have issued national digitalization agendas focusing on cloud and computer expertise and also adopted an accessible and green environment (for a list of Asia-Pacific nations, click here).

WEF helps countries to create a sustainable and inclusive digital economy under its Platform for Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and New Value Creation via 2 initiatives:

(1) Digital Transformation for Long-Term Growth

This programme introduces business frontrunners, trendsetters, specialists, and legislators to promote innovative digital business prototypes to produce supportable and robust industries.

(2) EDISON Alliance

Focusing on digital inclusion, this initiative applies the combined efforts of different business sectors to thrive. Through its 1 Billion Lives Challenge, reasonably priced access to digital services in education, healthcare, and financial services is expected to be available by 2025.

An article called “We Go Digital: The South Korean Case and Sustainable Digital Transformations” by the United Nations University’s Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies dated 13 May 2020 stated that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a surge in using digital technology to track, monitor and manage Covid cases. The government announced detailed information about patients’ movements, timelines of engagements, lodgings and whether they were wearing masks.

According to an article by Docuten Bundle Cloud entitled “Sustainability and digitalisation: a common strategy” dated 13 October 2021, the European Union (EU) is still trying to catch up in areas like cybersecurity, data processing and artificial intelligence. Therefore, countries in the EU have presented their digitalisation agenda called Digital Europe Programme 2021-2027 to boost the European ecosystem.

New Zealand is developing their digitalisation plan to “define the goals, priorities, and activities for the next 2 to 5 years” including desired results through 2031 and beyond. The strategy includes improving the job market by creating more tech-related jobs through digital transformation and technology alliances with a technology services network of multiple business establishments based in the country.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s closest neighbour, Australia, has devised a strategy to promote critical and emerging technologies in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Quantum, and Robotics.

How does Digital Technology satisfy UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The Frontier Hub believed that “Digital Technologies Are the Only Chance To Achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030” (17 December 2021) by arguing that the importance of information technology does not lie just in the more efficient use of resources to lower gas emissions but includes the managing and announcing of progress in an uncensured manner to realize the SDGs. It is also believed that if such technologies were applied to benefit society as a whole (including the environment), 22% of the SDGs would be achieved and negative effects would be reduced by 23% on average.

In June 2022, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) supported a master plan to direct digitalisation towards being eco-friendly and socially supportable. This plan is called the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES) and is part of the Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation. The main objective of CODES is to fulfill the 17 UN SDGs. To obtain a pdf copy of CODES, click here and click here to join the CODES community.

In order to do this, CODES requires 3 universal modifications:

(1) Allow Alignment of Digital Technology with Sustainable Development Objectives

This can be achieved by associating robust, international partnerships of green practice with technological experts to develop shared ideas, frameworks and goals to give precedence to those investments and resources required for success.

(2) Reduce Negative Effects of Digital Technology on Ecological and Social Frameworks

Crucial areas to focus on include greenhouse gas discharges, metals and e-waste, fabrication of information, and the inequity between those with right of entry to digital expertise and those without.

(3) Fast-track Digital Innovation

This can be done by activating and producing investments and reserves to develop environmentally friendly and community-based programmes like sustainable digital e-commerce platforms.

The infographic below by Umwelt Bundesamt provides more information on CODES.

Circular sketch showing 9 types of CODES
Explanation of CODES.
Source: Umwelt Bundesamt

The infographic below in KPMG International’s article called” The new technology frontier for developing economies” (undated) highlighted 6 digital transformation areas which can help organizations achieve the UN SDGs. To get the full pdf, click here.

Sketch: Six Digital Transformation Areas to meet the UN SDGs
Six Digital Transformation Areas to meet the UN SDGs.
Source: KPMG International

World Digital Competitiveness Ranking

This “measures the capacity and readiness of 63 economies to adopt and explore digital technologies as a key driver for economic transformation in business, government and wider society” and was created by the IMD World Competitiveness Center.

The ranking directs countries and business establishments to the areas where resources should be focused and what best practices are needed to attain digital conversion.

The infographic by Statista shows that Denmark secured the top ranking in 2022 with various Nordic countries following suit, like Sweden, Finland, and Norway (top 15). The United States was the champion in 2021 and achieved second place in 2022.

Asia Pacific Digital Sustainability Index

Tata Consultancy Services, the largest IT company in India and ranked third after IBM in 2021, unveiled the Asia Pacific Digital Sustainability Index that follows how business establishments embrace and utilize digital technology to pursue sustainability goals.

The 4 highlights captured by the index mentioned the vital role played by technology in meeting environmental objectives, business motives that impact sustainability advancement including the responsibilities of the board and executives, existing factors related to capitalizing digital assets, tools and infrastructure, and seizing the worth of DS and channeling the environment to advance DS. To download the full report, click here.

Last Word

Digital Technology has been disruptive, especially, for the past 3 years when the world was devastated by Covid-19. And it has been used by many countries to track, control and manage the pandemic. Now, it is time to give back to the planet and society by employing that same expertise to grow Digital Sustainability and grant access to people in locations which are not yet exposed to digital practicality which can be a life-saving necessity.