8. Refuse, rethink, reduce

All forms of sourcing virgin metals – be it in Europe, China, developing countries, the oceans beneath or the cosmos above – come with important drawbacks. Circular strategies such as reuse and recycling are crucial for the phasing-out of mining and the preservation of ores, but cannot satisfy our demand for metals in the short run. There are, however, other circular strategies, which go beyond technological fixes. Those on the highest rungs of the ‘circularity ladder’ (1) are the most effective: refuse, rethink and reduce.

These strategies make us question our lifestyles and the metabolism of our societies. Are all 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 an electric car
take the place of every fossil-fuel car
that goes to the scrapyard?
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
bikes, public transport and shared e-cars.
The average shared car would need only
a small battery, since most trips are
relatively short. For the occasional long
journey, shared cars with more battery
range would be available.

Such a rethink of mobility could save a huge amount of scarce metals for batteries and electromotors. (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) A lesser 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.

Digitalisation

The 15-minute city

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

ville du quart d’heure, where residents
can meet most of their needs in their
own neighbourhoods. Schools, shops,
healthcare and leisure should 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 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)

Data frugality

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.

Beyond GDP

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)

Footnotes

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), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

Reacties

19 mei 21

Peeke Hoekstra (niet gecontroleerd)

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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