Digital technologies in Europe: An environmental life cycle approach

Did you know that digital technologies in Europe weighs more than all humans on earth? This is why the Greens/EFA are demanding an environmental life cycle approach to make our technological devices last longer and therefore more sustainable. Read the full study on the environmental impact of digital technologies here.

Key policy recommendations

Fewer, longer lasting and more sustainable digital devices:

  • To reduce the number of devices, make them multifunctional
  • Fight all forms of obsolescence by extending the legal duration of software update periods to a minimum of 5 years
  • Increase reuse rates by moving from proprietary systems to interoperable and open ones and making the right to return compulsory
  • Incentivise the durability of products, second hand purchases and refurbishment with consumer protection

Providing European citizens with reliable data on digital responsibility:

  • Create a scientific observatory and committee capable of providing consensus and peer-reviewed information to the European Commission on the environmental and health impacts of digital technology
  • Obligatory environmental impact assessments for manufacturers and/or distributors of digital products
  • Make environmental labelling mandatory for digital products and services
  • Regularly quantify the impact of digital technology in Europe and analyse the evolution of the structure of impacts

Strengthening the strategic autonomy of the EU on raw materials

  • Make Europe the industrial leader in secondary raw materials by establishing efficient recyclability standards and targets
  • Ensure the systematic collection of e-waste and prevent illegal pathways to keep the benefit of our valuable resources
  • Ban the opening of new raw material mines in Europe

Our digital world impacts our physical world

A constant and uncontrolled increase in our green-house gas emissions will make our reality one of cataclysmic and irreversible climate change.

Biodiversity is under unparalleled attack, with the sixth mass extinction underway. In the Anthropocene era, the evidence that our “extractivist” industrial model and our “consuming” society disrupt the Earth’s natural cycles is indisputable. We need to take action.

This study highlights the resounding impact of digital technology and the IT sector on our environment. It deconstructs the notion that the digital world is light and dematerialised – “virtual”, “in the clouds” – and that it has no impact on the physical world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the Euro-pean Union’s heavy dependence on critical resources for the production of our digital devices. This is not just an environmental threat, but is precarious for the EU’s digital sovereignty.

How can we ensure our digital resilience for the times to come?

A systemic approach to change is fundamental. The industrial revolution saw a tenfold increase in humanity’s mechanical and energy capacity, but brought with it an environmental sacrifice that has taken us centuries to fully comprehend. The digital revolution will bring about equally fundamental changes – be they ecological, social, economic, democratic or geopolitical. We need to ensure that we do not usher in a similar Trojan horse.

Data will be key to ensuring that the digital and climate transitions do not hamper each other. Knowing the exact environmental cost of technology is a pre-requisite for green digital innovation. In order to make strong policy decisions for the future, we urgently need to assess the ecological impact of digital technology and its contribution to the European Green Deal. This must be backed up by action in European legislation: we need environmental standards for digital technologies, networks and infrastructures for their entire life cycle and condition our digital strategic decisions to their cost/benefits in terms of environmental impact.

A need for sustainable digital innovation

The European Commission, under the presidency of Ursula Von der Leyen, has declared its ambition to adapt the European economy to the urgency of our time with its flagship policies, the European Green Deal and Europe Fit for the Digital Age. Reconciling the dual ecological and digital transitions will be an essential pillar of future EU legislation.

Accurately assessing the impact of our digital technology will encourage sustainable digital innovation. This is the best way to ensure that digital advancement stays in line with the European Green Deal.

A European approach is essential to achieving a green and sustainable digital economy. We hope that this study will help lay the evidence-based foundations for the urgent political decisions that we must take to meet the challenges of our time.

Methodology

The study includes two complementary parts:

(1) A life-cycle assessment of digital technologies in Europe

The first part quantitatively assesses the impacts of digital technologies on the environment: it takes an inventory of the stock of equipment in use in the EU-28 in 2019 and assesses their impact across their whole life cycle: the manufacturing, distribution, use, and end-of-life. To ensure that all environmental impacts are taken into account, the methodology follows a multi-criteria approach that accounts for several environmental indicators beyond climate change. 

This approach ensures that so-called “impact transfers” – measures adopted to solve one environmental problem that eventually create another – or lesser-known harmful effects are not overlooked in the assessment.  

This life cycle assessment is groundbreaking for research as it is the first to create a harmonised inventory across the entire EU. 

(2) In depth-studies “Beyond the Numbers”

This part adopts a qualitative approach for emerging technologies and concepts like IoT, artificial intelligence, Cloud, 5G, autonomous vehicles, rebound effects, raw materials, e-waste and the circular economy. Each case study explains why the technology addressed is a help or a hindrance for the environment, highlighting some key findings, an expert’s input and when possible, some examples of solutions.

It is the first time that such extensive and harmonised data has been collected and gathered in one document, following a common standard and methodology. This study has been peer-reviewed with ISO 14071 methodology and complies with the best international standards regarding life cycle methodology (ISO 14040-44).

More information about the Greens/EFA’s campaign

On several occasions, the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament have brought to the Commission’s attention the importance of the digital transition for promoting the green transition. In 2020, the European Parliament voted in favour of the report, Towards a sustainable single market for business and consumers, by Greens/EFA MEP, David Cormand. This report  proposes measures to tackle premature obsolescence, reduce digital waste and ensure greater transparency and consumer protection.

Several letters have been shared with the Commission: a letter dated from April 2021 calling on the European Commission to introduce a clear legislative proposal for sustainable circular data centres in the EU, and another letter dated from October 2021 calling on the European Commission to adopt an ecological approach to connectivity. 

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