The hidden cost of technology
Many years ago I was talking to a CIO friend of mine. His company was a petroleum producer, and he said he was concerned about the ethics of his job. He said that technology helped his and other companies become more efficient and to move faster. The problem is that they were becoming more efficient at using non-renewable resources and at using them faster. And I suppose that is true of technology in many industries. Of course, technology also improves lives and provides jobs. So the discussion becomes about the wise use of technology, and if one thing that capitalism has demonstrated, is that it’s more about profit and consumption than about responsibility and wisdom.
Here's some of the costs. Data Centers have (conservatively) the same emissions as the aviation industry - 2% of global emissions. But wait, that's not all. To produce a single computer takes 240kg of fossil fuels, 22kg of chemicals and 1.5 tons of water. An take 9 times the energy to produce that the computer will use in its lifetime. But wait, that's not all. Only 12.5% of e-waste is recycled according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). And that is done badly. Only 29% of e-waste is handled according to best practices. For example, Guiyu in China is a major recycling destination. Hydrochloric acid is thrown on the items to expose the steel and copper to be recycled. High levels of lead poisoning are reported among Guiyu residents. Recycling e-waste is more profitable than mining the original ores. One ton of circuit boards is estimated to contain 40 to 800 times more gold than one metric ton of ore. There is 30 to 40 times more copper in a ton of circuit boards that can be mined from one metric ton of ore.
So as you and I sit at our computers, have a thought for the ecological and human cost of our digital world.
Of course it's not all bad: Smart cities and intelligent buildings are all about using energy and other resources more efficiently. The renewable energy industry is a no-brainier. The sharing economy, using online platforms to innovate and share resources, is equally beneficial to the environment. Companies like Blablacar is a long-distance car-pooling platform, or Turo – a peer-to-peer car rental service, There’s Vinted, a used clothing online store, and Engie which shares resources across construction sites and provide for mini-grid electricity sharing. All of these have a profit motive, but get that profit from providing for sharing.
IoT (sensing devices) reduces resources used in factories and in agriculture by anticipating shortfalls and by preventing the overuse of resources where they are sufficient. There’s a weeding robot, which is set loose in fields and eliminates the need for herbicides. IoT is also used in smart parking, notifying drivers of parking spots, and removing the need for driving around. Some waste companies use IoT to sense when waste bins are full and due for pickup, thus reducing their transport and fuel consumption.
E-commerce optimizes logistics and transportation. Information flows freely, so spillage and pollution become visible immediately. PWC[i] released a report in 2018 in which they consider the game-changers that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will bring to the environment. These include autonomous and connected electric vehicles, distributed energy grids, smart agriculture, weather forecasting and climate modeling, disaster response, optimization of water resource management, and real-time environmental monitoring and response.
Digitization can be good for the planet, or it can be a disaster. Your choice.
[i] PWC, “Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth. Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth,” 2018, https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/sustainability/assets/ai-for-the-earth-jan-2018.pdf