The Role of Technology in the Climate Crisis: Can Tech Save Us?

  • Samantha Fox

Think piece for TCO London and TCO Lab on the effect our daily lifestyle and digital habits are having on the environment.

ARTWORK: Sabrina Ratte

Pervasive smartphone usage and automated technologies are the norm in our day-to-day lives, and we’ve become increasingly aware of the negative consequences of too much screen time on our mental and emotional wellbeing. Perhaps less widely-known, yet somewhat more sinister, is the threat our daily digital habits are having on our planet’s natural resources and its future.

A March 2019 study by Paris-based think tank The Shift Project found that nearly 4% of all CO2 emissions globally can now be attributed to the usage and transfer of data and communications technology across the world (that encompasses most of our digital activities - from internet browsing to downloading music, right through to sending a text message), surpassing even the aviation industry at 2.5%. But what is causing this intensive global surge in power demand and is there anything we can do to curb our digital energy emissions?

By 2020 it is predicted that there will be more than 50 billion connected devices in the world (that’s over 7x the current global population), while smartphone production accounts for 85-95% of its carbon footprint. The Fairphone 2 was launched in 2015 with a five year life expectancy, offering a counter to devices with built-in obsolescence and our modern-day “break it, replace it” mentality - but it’s still the only phone brand built to be repaired with replaceable parts. The new Right to Repair rules from the EU, coming into effect from 2021 onwards, will force manufacturers to make goods that last longer and are easier to mend.

Even more staggeringly, The Shift Project found video streaming was responsible for 300 million tons of CO2 in 2018, which is equivalent to what a country the size of Spain would release in a year. The gaming industry responded earlier this year with a number of pledges as part of the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) Playing for the Planet Alliance, including adding "green nudges" in game design to normalise eco-conscious behaviour and providing tips to save energy while playing. Meanwhile, the PlayStation 5 console due for release in 2020 will dramatically reduce its power consumption, and Microsoft plans to release 825,000 carbon-neutral Xbox consoles in the near future.

In the age of convenience, it’s all too easy to turn to the apps in our pockets to play games, stream YouTube videos, order food, hail taxis and more at the quick tap and swipe of a screen, but our digital habits and modern lifestyle choices are coming at the expense of the climate and our local communities. More than 1.5 million packages are delivered in New York City every day as a result of our internet shopping habits, causing traffic congestion and pollution, road safety issues, as well as power-use that most people are completely unaware of.

Launched in Helsinki, Finland this year, the Think Sustainably app provides locals with practical tools to make more sustainable choices day-to-day. Resembling a city guide, its format enables businesses to easily access a checklist of actions to make their enterprises more green, while residents and visitors can support local businesses that are lessening their environmental impact. It’s part of the city’s wider drive to make Helsinki carbon neutral by 2035.

In his 2018 book New Dark Age, writer James Bridle points to a study in Japan that estimates that by 2030, the power requirements of digital products and services will completely outstrip the country’s current power generation capacity.

Ecosia is a search engine that enables users to offset their power usage by planting trees with every internet search they make - based in Berlin, it donates 80% or more of its profits to organisations that focus on reforestation, and as of 6th November this year, the search engine had been responsible for the planting of more than 73 million trees.

As we face the biggest threat to our species, it is imperative that we have a more responsible attitude towards our ever-growing digital ecosystem and lifestyle choices, and hold ourselves accountable if we are to slow down the decline of our planet’s own natural ecosystem – using modern technology as a tool for good and in sync with nature to build a more prosperous and sustainable world our future generations can inhabit.

Samantha Fox, Strategist at TCO Lab

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