8. Refuse, rethink, reduce

All sources of virgin metals – whether in Europe, China, developing countries, the depths of the oceans, or the cosmos – come with important drawbacks. While circular strategies such as reuse and recycling are crucial for the phasing-out of mining and the preservation of ores, they cannot satisfy our demand for metals in the short term. There are, however, other circular strategies which go beyond technological fixes. Those on the highest rungs of the ‘circularity ladder’ are the most effective: refuse, rethink, and reduce.

These strategies make us question our lifestyles and the metabolism of our societies. Are all of the devices that require energy, data, and materials really indispensable? Can we meet our needs in a smarter way?

Circularity ladder
Circularity ladder: The 10 R's of the circular economy. Source: PBL (1)

E-car sharing

Take electric vehicles. They are key to
carbon-free mobility and breathable
cities. However, should every single
fossil-fuel car that goes to the scrapyard
really be replaced by an electric one?

Even with clean propulsion, moving 1,000
kilogrammes of metal to transport an
average of 1.5 human bodies takes a
heavy toll on the planet.
We could make
do with far fewer cars if we shifted to
using bicycles, public transport, and
shared e-cars. The average shared car
would only need a small battery, since
most trips are relatively short. For the
occasional long journey, shared cars with
more battery range would be available.

Huge quantities of scarce metals for use in batteries and electromotors could be saved by such a mobility rethink. (2) If one e-car were enough to replace five fossil-fuel cars, the EU would only need half as much lithium and cobalt as is currently projected. (3) Reduced dependence on private cars would also save energy, allowing us to speed up the energy transition and complete it with fewer wind turbines and solar panels – once again saving metals.

ecology and solidarity

The 15-minute city

A rethink of urban planning could also
reduce the need for motorised vehicles.
The city of Paris wants to become a

ville du quart d’heure in which the
majority of residents' needs can be
met in their own neighbourhoods.
Schools, shops, healthcare, and leisure
activities should all be available within
15 minutes' walking or 5 minutes'
cycling distance. According to the
scientist Carlos Moreno, who coined the
term, the 15-minute city requires density,
proximity, diversity, and digitalisation. (4)

The pooling and sharing of vehicles can be facilitated by online platforms which bring together supply and demand. There are many other digital innovations which can help Europe become climate-neutral and circular. Smart electricity grids, for example, use data and algorithms to balance power consumption with supply from wind turbines and solar panels, 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, thus supporting value chain due diligence. (5) Smart cameras can even protect birds from wind turbine injuries by shutting down the spinning blades when there is a risk of collision. (6)

Data frugality

The usefulness of other aspects of digitalisation is more questionable. Do we really need a new smartphone every two years, knowing as we do that many of the metals in the phone we discard cannot at present be recycled? An upgradeable phone is so much smarter. Does watching films online in ultra-high-definition instead of high-definition  which doubles data use (7) make our lives more fulfilling? Is a refrigerator that automatically orders more beer when it runs out a useful application of the Internet of Things or an example of wasteful excess? (8) Most of us would be glad to do without online advertisements, which are responsible for about a quarter of our data consumption when we browse the web. (9)

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. (10) 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. (11) Similar rules should prevent software from being bloated with pre-installed features that are barely used, and with updates that require excessive amounts of memory, storage, or processing power, thereby slowing down devices and pushing users to swap their old devices for new ones.

Ecodesign rules for cryptocurrencies are long overdue. Bitcoin’s method of validating transactions is a huge waste of computing power. As a result, its electricity consumption approaches that of the Netherlands (12), while Bitcoin mining hardware, which becomes obsolete roughly every 18 months, generates almost as much e-waste as the country of Luxembourg. (13)

By connecting climate justice and digital justice, we can identify measures which serve both sustainability and civil liberties. Prohibiting trade in personal data (14), personalised advertisements (15), live facial recognition cameras (16), and untargeted interception of telecommunications would drastically reduce the 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 more frugal use of data might actually improve our quality of life while at the same time preserving resources for our descendants.


Fewer gigabytes, more privacy

A study commissioned by the Greens in the European Parliament sheds light on the carbon footprint of surveillance capitalism. Many smartphone apps contain trackers that follow users online, often without their knowledge, in order to process their private data into a profile. This allows advertising networks to target smartphone users with personalised ads. The data traffic generated by such tracking and targeting amounts to between 30 and 50 billion gigabytes per year just for the EU. This translates into annual CO2 emissions of 5 to 14 megatonnes. To compensate for these emissions, the EU would need to install between 90 and 260 million solar panels. (17) Or its lawmakers could simply decide to ban this violation of our privacy by the apps on our smartphones.

Beyond GDP

A further benefit of sharing arrangements, extended device lifetimes, and data frugality would be savings for consumers, companies, and governments. But policy makers should once again take the rebound effect into account. If people who give up car ownership use the money saved to take more holiday flights, their ecological footprint might actually increase. (18) Strategies for material efficiency must therefore be aligned with broader sustainability policies, including a reduction in air travel. Since economic growth also exerts an upward pressure on resource use and harmful emissions, governments should change the stars by which they navigate from gross domestic product (GDP) to well-being and sustainability. (19)


Further viewing

Green European Foundation, 'A Charter for the Smart City' Afspelen op YouTube
Guardian news, 'Why bitcoin is so bad for the planet' Afspelen op YouTube
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), the Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.


19 mei 21

Peeke Hoekstra

limits to data in the cloud

It looks like that there is no limit to the amount of pictures that individuals can store 'in the cloud'.
And I fear that every time an image is shared, it is stored in another person's 'cloud' also.
I think we should think of ways to set limits to the amount of data each can store.
Can we limit the amount of stored data at individual level (loss of privacy?), at account level (then how to limit the number of accounts per individual?), at physical machine level or by restricting or decouraging sharing?

01 juni 21

Richard Wouters

data in the cloud

@Peeke It's a good idea to look for ways to limit unnecessary cloud storage. 'Ecodesign' for cloud back-up services could mean that they don't upload all images and videos on a user's computer by default, but ask the user to make a selection.
Most cloud storage services already set a limit on the amount of gigabytes that a user can store for free.
Finally, individuals, companies and governments could take part in Data Deletion Day: https://deletionday.com

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