The urgency of tackling climate change cannot be overstated. Bold action is desperately needed. Enter the role of digital technologies, touted as a panacea for addressing (all) the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Goal 13 specifies climate action. Back in the day, actions like ‘going paperless’ and ‘thinking before printing’ were popular calls to stir individual and collective environmental consciousness; we would save trees and the planet by switching to digital. These days, we can calculate our individual carbon footprint based on our every online activity. On a greater scale, we are told that innovative approaches such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning could help in numerous ways, such as making climate predictions, mapping carbon emissions, and monitoring deforestation. There is no shortage of proposals at the technology and climate intersection. There are, however, several prerequisites for the desired success.
First, access to the digital technologies facilitating these transformations is not ubiquitous. Their universality and affordability – notably information and communications technologies (ICTs) and the Internet – are part of the very SDGs they are envisioned to help realise; particularly in least developed countries (SDG 9c). Second, these tools and their attendant systems have significant energy demands. It is thus imperative that we assess how these innovations are powered. The status quo is worrisome: Energy consumption of ICTs increases by 9% every year, producing up to double the amount of global greenhouse gas emissions of the aviation industry. Internet use – currently used by more than half of the global population and billions of connected devices – is estimated will require up to 20% of the global electricity supply by 2030. The digital revolution is seemingly buttressed by carbon-intensive energy sources; it may be even be creating more demand for them as we grow to depend on its technologies, on personal and industry levels. What, then, do we make of the purported gains to tackling climate change, when we incorporate these power dynamics?
In my view, the intricate links between digital technologies’ energy demands and their effect on the climate, are not given sufficient prominence in policy and governance discourses. Popular framing of digital technologies and their contribution to the SDGs overwhelmingly propagates myopic optimism and entrenches solutionism, while trivialising their net impact on the environment; energy demand-and-supply being just one of the ramifications. This interrelatedness is altogether overlooked or barely made noteworthy in digital and climate policy roadmaps such as ‘The Age of Digital Interdependence’ report and the ‘Paris Agreement’ respectively.
The coronavirus pandemic is irreversibly cementing the critical role of digital technologies in our lives. With global travel disrupted and local movement restricted, our means of connecting and working are primarily online. E-learning, for example, was technically available in the past; now, it’s a lifeline for education systems worldwide. G-7 leaders will meet virtually for the first time; healthcare professionals are offering online consultations with patients in developing and developed countries alike. Those of us with affordable and meaningful access to the Internet, to phones and computers, are relying on social media, online news sources and the web ecosystem overall for updates, for ordering supplies; even for global solidarity. We are fortunate for these workarounds. Every information search, conversation, e-conference, and device charge may also, unfortunately, reverse the few climate gains from our minimised offline activity; an unsustainable trajectory.
Digital technology industry players are laudably putting measures in place to reduce or altogether eliminate their carbon emissions. Nonetheless, as more energy is required to support our online existences and to tackle grand challenges, it behoves those influencing policy and governance discourses – in digital as in climate action – to temper the hopes posited on the role of these technologies. All hype must be balanced with the sobering reality that an immediate outcome is the increased carbon footprint. This necessarily complicates the proposed value-add digital technologies ultimately offer to tackling climate change.
It is encouraging that ‘Digital and Environment’ is one of the proposed topics for the next Internet Governance Forum. With its glocal reach and commitment to engaging diverse stakeholder groups, it will be a crucial step in recalibrating our approach; but not all that glitters with digital technologies is climate action gold. It could be useful in combatting climate change, but only if we ensure that it does not aggravate – rather than alleviate – the environmental burden. Our digitally connected, greener future depends on meticulously factoring this into how we design then deploy technological, policy, and governance interventions alike.
 Some estimates put ICTs’ emissions on par with those in the aviation industry
Nanjira Sambuli is a researcher, policy analyst, and advocacy strategist who works to understand the intersection of information and communications technology (ICT) adoption with governance, media, entrepreneurship, and culture through a gender lens. Sambuli led policy advocacy at the World Wide Web Foundation (2016-2020) to promote digital equality in access to and use of the web. She previously worked at iHub in Nairobi, where she provided strategic guidance for growth of technology innovation research in the East Africa region. Sambuli is a commissioner on the Lancet & Financial Times Global Commission (Governing Health Futures 2030), a board member at The New Humanitarian, and a member of the DFID’s Digital Advisory Panel. She served as a panel member on the United Nations Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (2018-19) and as a deputy on the United Nations Secretary General's High-Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016-17).
Sambuli is currently studying with DiploFoundation for her Master's degree in Contemporary Diplomacy.