The pooling and sharing of vehicles is facilitated by online platforms which bring together supply and demand. There are many other digital innovations which help Europe become climate-neutral and circular. Smart electricity grids, for example, use data and algorithms to balance power consumption with the supply from the wind and sun, thereby reducing the need for power plants and storage batteries. Digital product passports facilitate repair and recycling. Sensors and artificial intelligence improve the sorting of waste, including scrap metals. Digital ledgers such as blockchains ensure that products and the materials they contain can be traced back to their origins, which supports value chain due diligence. (5) Smart cameras can even protect birds around wind turbines by shutting down the spinning blades when there is a risk of collision. (6)
Other aspects of digitalisation are questionable though. Do we really need a new smartphone every two years, knowing that many of the metals in the phone we discard cannot be recycled as yet? An upgradeable phone is so much smarter. Does watching online films in ultra-high-definition instead of high-definition – which doubles data use – make our lives more fulfilling? Is a refrigerator that automatically orders beer when it runs out a useful application of the Internet of Things or a wasteful excess? (7) Most of us would be glad to do without online advertisements, which cause about a quarter of our data consumption when we browse the web. (8)
Data use is growing exponentially because efficiency gains in the digital sector have a strong rebound effect: as the transmission, storage and processing of data become cheaper, new applications emerge. (9) Innovations such as 5G, connected devices and artificial intelligence push up the demand for ICT equipment and infrastructure, from servers and routers to data cables and antennas. To prevent a resource-devouring data explosion, the EU would be well advised to adopt ecodesign rules that limit the data use of online films, videos, games and advertisements, as well as connected devices. (10)
Similar rules for cryptocurrencies are long overdue. Bitcoin’s method of validating transactions is a huge waste of computing power. In consequence, its electricity consumption approaches that of the Netherlands. (11) Bitcoin mining hardware, which becomes obsolete roughly every 18 months, generates almost as much e-waste as the country of Luxemburg. (12)
By connecting climate justice and digital justice, we can identify measures which serve both sustainability and civil liberties. Prohibiting trade in personal data (13), personalised advertisements (14), live facial recognition cameras (15) and untargeted interception of telecommunications would result in less storage, transmission and processing of personal data. This would not only temper data growth, but also protect us from consumerist manipulation, political microtargeting and mass surveillance. A frugal use of data might actually improve our quality of life while saving resources for our descendants.
Once more, policy makers should be wary of the rebound effect, however. Sharing arrangements, extended lifetimes of devices and data frugality save money for consumers, companies and governments. What will they spend this money on? If people who give up car ownership take more holiday flights, their ecological footprint might actually increase. (16) Therefore, strategies for material efficiency must be aligned with broader sustainability policies, including the reduction of air travel. Since economic growth exerts an upward pressure on resource use and harmful emissions as well, governments should change the compass they navigate on: from gross domestic product (GDP) to well-being and sustainability. (17)