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Environmental impact of the use of digital technology

The digital transition is considered to be a key tool to reduce energy consumption in many sectors (“IT for Green”), to such an extent that it now hardly seems possible to address climate change without the large-scale incorporation of digital technologies. However, the direct and indirect environmental impacts (“rebound effects”) linked to the uses of digital technologies are both unsustainable and increasing rapidly.

The digital world is not immaterial, quite the contrary. It consists of computers, monitors, smartphones, millions of kilometres of copper and optical fibre cables, thousands of data centres, billions of phone chargers, and so on. The world mass of digital equipments amounts to 223 million tonnes: the equivalent of 179 million cars.

Production of digital material requires energy and water; it also depletes abiotic resources (non-renewable natural resources such as minerals). The contribution by digital economy to the environmental footprint of humanity is:

*N.B.: electricity consumption is not a relevant environmental indicator.

Digital technologies now emit 1 400 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG), which represents almost 4 % of total emissions. that is to say more than civil aviation. This share could double from now to 2025 to reach 8% of all GHG emissions, i.e. the current share of car emissions.

Primary energy consumption by digital economy is 4,2% of total, with annual increase of 9% a year. Water consumption of 0,2% is equivalent to 242 billion packs of mineral water (9 litres). Depending on the indicator observed, the digital footprint doubles or triples in 15 years.

A recent explosion of data traffic is responsible for more than half of digital technology’s global impact, with 55% of its annual energy consumption and its associated greenhouse emissions. Video flows represented 80% of global data flows in 2018 and 80% of the annual increase in their volume. Video is a dense medium of information: 10 hours of HD video comprises more data than all the articles in English on Wikipedia in text format! In 2018, online video viewing generated more than 300 MtCO2, i.e. as much GHG as Spain emits, equivalent to 1% of global emissions. VoD (video on demand) services in the world were equivalent to those of a country like Chile.

Distribution of online data flows between different uses in 2018 in the world: