Has the EU become a champion of digital sustainable development?

BRAL and other environmental NGOs found some pitfalls in the digitalization agenda for a green transition of the EU.

Who would have ever expected that the speeches by Ursula von der Leyen about the Green Deal sometimes sound as if written by the environmental movement? The EU has the explicit ambition to be the world’s leading region on sustainable development. The new digitalization agenda aims for a green transition. As an environmental movement, BRAL wonders: is this too good to be true?

A digital Europe as a lever for the green transition

A digital Europe was one of the pillars of the last German EU Presidency. It resulted in the adoption of new Council conclusions for a digital transformation and a green transition in December 2020. In a recent stakeholder event organized by the Belgian ‘Coordination Committee for International Environment Policy’, speakers from among others the German Presidency, the Commission, and the regional level explained the context and results of these Council conclusions. BRAL and fellow environmental NGOs pointed at some possible pitfalls in this happy-go-lucky story.

The goals of the agenda sound wonderful. A “right to repair” that ensures that ordinary citizens can make use of spare parts, repair guides, repair services, … A “product passport” to track environmental footprints, availability of spare parts, and information on extended producer responsibility, … Those are some of the principles of a new digitalization agenda for the benefit of the environment. Until recently, the EU agenda did not fully integrate what is necessary for a green transition and digitalization. The Council decided that from now on, this has to change. The EU wants to address the challenges of both needs and use digital solutions as levers for a green transition. The representative from DG Connect of the Commission, Ilias Iakovidis, talks of a “holistic view”. The agenda has to ensure that it is beneficial for social, economic, and environmental issues. In addition, if we add the baseline “leave no one behind” that stands at the core of the Green Deal, then the symphony comes near to music from heaven.

However, what does this mean in practice? Lakovidis admits that we need to ask ourselves first if ICT is a solution or a problem. What is the footprint of it? The energy consumption is huge, but the industry is working towards less energy consumption. It is in their financial interest to do so.

We need to ask ourselves first if ICT is a solution or a problem. – Ilias Iakovidis, DG Connect

Nonetheless, we need to take into account that a small device such as a laptop or smartphone, consumes the bulk of its energy during its production phase. According to Iakovidis, we should be more concerned with the consumption of resources. The industry makes money by selling more and more products; therefore, they tend to consume more and more materials. Iakovidis: “We need to make sure that there are business models about services too. We need a right to repair and the right to upgrade.”

Joachim D’Eugenio, of DG Environment: “In the enviro-sector, we’re not very good in following innovative developments like Artificial Intelligence. There is a lot to learn. We did not have a systemic understanding. We need to look at opportunities and risks.  Digitalization is the tool; the purpose is the Green Deal.”

D’Eugenio and Iakovidis point at several opportunities. For instance, if we can reduce congestions by using smart mobility solutions, we could reduce air pollution.  Ways big data could help there is by smart traffic lights that turn green when a buss approaches, booking a spot on a bridge, an app that can guide you to the best mobility service for your trajectory, … In farming, we can reduce the use of pesticides. Djida Bounazef and Fanny Deliège, of the ‘Agence du Numérique de la Wallonie’, add other examples. Wallonia has identified a great number of possible actions that are linked with digitalization, e.g. traffic control centers to improve mobility, earth observation for the benefit of biodiversity …

Beware of the pitfalls!

Although supporters of digitalization frequently emphasize its enabling potential to solve environmental problems, some stakeholders respond that it remains unclear whether positive indirect environmental impacts can outweigh the negative direct ones.

Among the negative ones there is off course climate impact but also less investigated environmental categories such as resource depletion, water, land use, and biodiversity. Someone adds that the problem of 5G is that it will allow and push for increased data flows causing more energy consumption. Is the potential of big data to reduce traffic jams great enough to solve the question of increasing energy consumption and resource depletion?

To steer digitalization in a sustainable direction, efficiency gains must not be overcompensated by increases in energy and resource consumption caused by economic growth.

Efficiency gains may not lead to overconsumption of energy and resources.

Another reacts, somewhat sarcastically, that it is nice to hear that digitalization is a tool and not an objective, that green criteria will be established. Nevertheless, the reality is that technology and innovation will always be ahead of the norms and regulations and that we have to systematically compete with the US and China. Can we trust the EU to treat innovation as a tool and not as a goal as such? Will the Commission reject an investment in digital if it does not have a positive environmental and social impact?

Can we trust the EU to treat innovation as a tool and not as a goal as such?

The discussion is not just about energy or resources. BRAL would not be BRAL without starting a discussion on the impact of (mostly expensive) digitalization on democratic control and the ownership of products and services. We have plenty of questions. Who will own these goods and services in the future? Will small farmers, neighborhoods, patients, schools... have access and if so, on what terms? Who will have control over data, production processes, design, ...? BRAL is concerned that disruptive innovations might amount to more monopolies and that authorities might lose democratic control on resources or the economic system. Does the Commission address these questions?

BRAL is concerned that disruptive innovations might amount to more monopolies and that authorities might lose democratic control on resources or business models.

What is on the table is a start

In their answers, the representatives of the Commission tried to make us look at the glass as half full. They told us we needed to recognize where we came from. Five years ago, these sorts of questions did not even resonate within the EU. The economy was everything and the collateral effect was less important. Now, these questions are on the table. We should all be encouraged to start engaging in this process.

About ownership, Iakovidis answers: digitalization could help a farmer to stop buying pesticides. He could instead make use of the service of a company to treat his land. The question we ask ourselves is: will he own the data himself so that he can go to another company? Shall he in any way co-own the process? The outcome will depend on many factors. “If there is the finance for the net positive, the positive will prevail,” he adds.

But what if one cannot make profit out of the necessary solutions? Who will finance it then? Will the Commission make sure that Planet and People will prevail above profit? The way we use digital tools and services thus raises many questions. It is therefore too soon to call the EU a champion of digital sustainable development. In our view, it is time the Commission starts a broad debate about the need for new technological developments. Do they really make us smarter, more social and more sustainable in the long run?

You can read more on the Green Deal and the opportunities for a sustainable transition that come with it, via the following links: