Generally speaking, the massive individual development of digital technologies (more and more of us are connected and increasingly multi-connected) has a structural consequence on the increase in the direct environmental footprint of digital technology. This plays out on the purchase of terminals, on the development of digital infrastructures, and to a lesser extent, on usage. Nevertheless, the positive externalities of digital technology is an important issue that has been largely bypassed in recent studies. Moreover, this point is subject to methodological weakness, since - no doubt intending to make their work more spectacular - many authors have not hesitated to highlight the most problematic uses of digital technology in their studies. The example of streaming, mentioned above, is striking. The authors of the Shift Project's first report claimed that it accounted for 1% of total CO2 emissions - a figure that they later admitted was false, with more recent studies suggesting a footprint 22 to 57 times smaller.
Positive externalities are manyfold and frequently underestimated. For example, the European Commission reports that the European Union has seen a 14% increase in truck loading efficiency in the last 15 years, due to the development of integrated information systems in the logistics chain. Many nations are seeing a significant drop in fuel consumption per kilometer driven on their roads. The significant quantity of connected GPS systems, which help avoid traffic jams, is probably a major contributing factor. Following the same logic, the French government has been providing financial incentives and assistance to install connected heaters (which go on standby when no one is home), because their efficiency compared to their cost is unbeatable, and so on. The case of home-office, in the context of the health crisis we are enduring, is also reflective of this point, as it has considerably reduced the use of highly energy-consuming means of transportation.
In fact, in a finite world, in which resource exploration generates significant negative externalities, making information widely accessible and usable is one of the most effective ways to reduce our environmental footprint. It allows us to synchronize needs with supply, and flows with infrastructures, at all levels of the production chain. Information technologies are developing at the right time, when the aim is no longer to produce more, but to produce better.
These aspects are overlooked and understudied. For instance, legume farming easily involves more than a hundred variables, some of which cannot be controlled (e.g., temperature, humidity). Yet, optimizing these variables can have very significant environmental repercussions on the quantity and quality of production, but also on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and other environmental externalities. In any case, machine learning could quickly become a powerful auxiliary in managing these multivariate environments and in optimizing the environmental requirements of these activities.
The digital revolution is responsible for a paradigmatic shift of at least the same magnitude as those that propelled us into the modern era. This revolution is multifold. It is firstly anthropological, altering our relationship to space, the nature of our social interactions, our psyche, etc. It is also economic, as those who traditionally dominated the 20th century have been replaced by digital players. Finally, it is geostrategic, as the preeminence of the State pre-eminence is no longer as clear-cut, threats are evolving, as are their instigators. We should therefore view the challenges we face in a new way. The aim is not to promote an ideological position, but to grasp the nature of this revolution in order for it to benefit the greatest number of people, and to allow it to become an auxiliary to the environmental revolution which, without a doubt, represents the greatest challenge of the 21st century.
One of the likely aims is the transformation of the digital industry, freeing it from its enslavement to mind-numbing consumerism and applying it to the fundamental challenge of the century. This means designing more virtuous systems, including equipment and software, and fostering the skills needed to bring together human activity, the environment, and digital technology. The dual challenge of the digital revolution’s acceleration and the imminent threat posed by climate change is a powerful incentive.
Copyright: Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash