AUTHOR: Thorfinn Stainforth
Digitalisation holds promise in a number of ways to help to combat climate change and enhance environmental sustainability, but equally many possible pitfalls for sustainability and other social issues.
Climate change and digitalisation are two global megatrends that will continue to shape EU policy for decades. The European Green Deal and the Von der Leyen Commission have introduced policy shifts in the EU in these areas with the two being linked more explicitly at a political level. The synthesis of these policy areas has also been accelerated by the EU recovery package (RRF), which requires EU Member States receiving coronavirus-recovery funds to make significant investments in both areas.
Today, Information and Communications Technology (ICT) accounts for 8-10% of electricity consumption and 2-4% of CO2 emissions. Globally, data centres will account for as many GHGs emissions as the airline industry by 2025. Given the massive growth of the industry, these numbers will continue to rise and need to be part of any credible climate policy.
Legislation at EU level
The European Commission’s (EC) Communication “Shaping Europe’s digital future” provides some details about its vision for the role of digitalisation in achieving climate ambitions and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including in circular economy and product standards, which are among the most promising areas of synergy.
In March 2021, the Commission presented the 2030 Digital Compass which lays out four key areas of the EU’s digital transformation, including targets, a monitoring system, and proposed projects, as well as a framework of digital principles which “will help promote and uphold EU values in the digital space”. Ahead of the proposal of a concrete work programme and inter-institutional declaration on Digital Principles by the Europan Commission by the end of 2021, IEEP will be looking at the synergies between digitalisation and sustainability and conducting a stakeholder consultation into the possible social challenges, risks, and benefits in this area.
Sustainability initiatives highlighted by the European Commission include a focus on more sustainable, energy and resource efficient digital infrastructures and technologies, a new Digital Product Passport, solutions to reduced GHGs and pesticide use in agriculture, and moblity technologies that can reduce the sector’s environmental footprint. The Digital Product Passport, which should allow for greater transparency and accountability in tracking the resource footprint of goods, will potentially be one of the most important proposals, and details will emerge in the autumn of 2021.
However, policymakers will need to pay attention to the effects of digitalisation across different sectors and policy areas, also to prevent unintended consequences. For example, in mobility policy, digitalisation can lead to more efficient traffic flow and help consumers to share resources and find sustainable options. It can also potentially lead to private actors funelling consumers into high profit, but less sustainable options such as taxis and ride sharing, while neglecting more sustainable, but less profitable options such as public transit or non-motorised transport. Integrated ticketing risks sidelining public sector actors unless the right legislative conditions are set. Policy frameworks should ensure that sustainable options are not sidelined.
It is also important to keep being vigilant around issues such as who owns data collected by digital service providers, accessibility of digital services to all, privacy rights in light of online and offline data tracking, and access to data. These are areas which will need active intervention at the EU level in order to protect rights and ensure that digital solutions are oriented to build sustainability rather than hampering it. The Declaration on Digital Principles should address these important issues, and it will be important for civil society actors to follow developments in this area over the next year.