Greenhouse gas emissions linked to digitalisation are rapidly increasing, despite efforts by tech groups to get more of their energy from renewables. The negative environmental effects need to be addressed more clearly than today, argues Mats Engström.

Mats Engström is Former Deputy State Secretary at the Swedish Ministry of the Environment.

The European Union “can set global standards for big data, artificial intelligence and automation”. This statement by Jean-Claude Juncker in his recent State of the Union speech is correct and important.

By combining European leadership in new technologies and in climate policy, such an approach can be even more convincing.

In a new geopolitical situation, Europe can play a crucial role, as the Commission President emphasised. The large internal market creates unique opportunities to promote European values and interest globally. When it comes to digitalisation and AI, what should these standards be?

Already, the EU institutions have taken important steps on AI and ethics. The same applies to initiatives promoting a digital internal market. But still, a crucial part of the puzzle remains. So far, environmental aspects are to a large extent missing from EU policy documents in these fields.

Greenhouse gas emissions linked to digitalisation are rapidly increasing. Large amounts of electricity are needed for processing and storage of big data, as well as for manufacturing of computers, screens and smartphones. Energy use linked to blockchain technology has grown substantially. In one recent study, researchers Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi found that by 2040, greenhouse gas emissions from the use of ICT could correspond to more than 14% of today’s total emissions.

Generation of dangerous waste, unsustainable mining of rare earth metals and high water consumption of data centers add to this picture.

Of course, digitalisation can improve the environment. Electricity can be produced and distributed more efficiently. Intelligent transport systems may reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and so on.

However, the negative environmental effects need to be addressed more clearly than today.

Yes, there are initiatives to power data centers with renewable energy and to reduce their power consumption. But this is not enough. For example, the drastic increase of energy use for bitcoin production should have been identified earlier as an environmental issue and alternative, more efficient algorithms actively promoted. It is high time for the ICT sector to feature more prominent in climate strategies, and for ecological sustainability to be a key issue in digital strategies.

Machine learning is a case in point. Strategies on artificial intelligence are rapidly being adopted by a number of governments. The European Commission aims to agree a coordinated plan on AI with Member States by the end of this year. There are positive elements in the Commission Communication on AI, for example on algorithmic awareness building and on reducing energy consumption for data processing. But it is crucial that other environmental concerns are included and that sustainability issues are more urgently addressed.

A key issue is how AI systems are trained. There is for example an urgent need for research and development on how to apply machine learning in a way that does not reproduce earlier ecological mistakes. Otherwise current non-sustainable consumption and production patterns might automatically be reinforced.

A task force led by French mathematician Cédric Villani recently presented a number of useful recommendations in the report For a meaningful artificial intelligence. Cédric Villani makes inter alia the following proposals:

  • Promote AI that uses less energy (for example by eco-labelling of cloud providers, and by supporting alternatives to today´s energy intense graphics processing units, GPU’s)
  • Develop a platform for measuring the environmental impact of intelligent digital solutions
  • Establish a meeting-point for ecological transition and AI

Integration of environmental concerns in all sectors is a key principle in the European Union Treaties. Strategies on digitalisation and AI should reflect this, in a similar way that the Commission has already highlighted the need for ethical considerations. It will make EU policy stronger, both when it comes to sustainability and to long-term competitiveness.

As part of such a broader ecological approach, the European Commission should listen to Cédric Villani and integrate the environment in the AI strategy to be agreed this year. To facilitate such an approach, the current High Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence could be enlarged with more knowledge on the links between digitalization and sustainability. This would also facilitate international cooperation on this truly global issue.

ICT and climate change: Problem or solution?

Information and communication technologies can help curb global warming, but the sector is also coming under growing pressure from the EU to lead by example by cutting its own emissions, which are now comparable to that of the aviation sector.