Digital transformation and ecological transition are not incompatible

In these times of acute awareness of environmental issues, our lifestyles face some healthy and very necessary questioning, namely in terms of the digital technology. Philippe Tuzzolino, Orange Group Environmental Director, sheds his expert light on the subject to put into perspective various aspects of the digital phenomenon.

Some 190 states, institutions and NGOs are gathered in Katowice in Poland for the COP24 from 3 to 14 December 2018. The aim is to produce roadmaps for each country on how to implement the decisions contained in the Paris COP21 Agreement. The event is also an opportunity for businesses to take stock of the progress achieved on the commitments made in 2017 at the One Planet Summit in Paris.

You will recall that Orange translated these commitments into 2 ambitious objectives:

  • halving CO2 emissions per customer use by 2020 (compared to 2006 levels),
  • integrating the principles of the circular economy into the Group’s structure and processes.

So, how are operators in general doing in terms of this process and what is now known as the digital economy?

Ecological transition: and what if digital technology were part of the solution?

We often hear about the “digital sector”, a vaguely defined concept that seems to include big tech companies (GAFAM), operators, equipment manufacturers and a host of internet platforms, web companies, developers and other engineering businesses.

First point: digital technology is not just ONE sector. Digital technology is in ALL sectors. It is present in all areas of human activity: industry, transport, trade, all company IT systems, cities (smart cities), in our personal space... And so, as digital technology progresses, the more the demand for bandwidth and the associated costs increase. At the same time, innovative and corrective actions are being taken in order to reduce them, with the results helping to diminish the overall impact.

Second point: digital technology is by nature a driver of solutions in favour of the energy and ecological transitions. Smart cities, smart grids and home automation all contribute to closer management of energy bills. The self-driving car, even if it is a great consumer of data, embodies the future of deliberate transport choices by being part of multi-modal travel, car sharing between individuals and in company fleets, and transport service platform applications are rewriting the traditional rules. In other areas such as e-agriculture, for example, innovative solutions enable the efficient management of natural resources. Digital technology even provides direct support for scientific research on climate change, as is the case for CREA Mont-Blanc or the oceanographic platform Euro Argo supported by Orange…

Digital technology needs to be given the time to realise its full potential

This is the third major point: even if all these technological advances briefly described above are promising, their effects have not yet been fully realised.

Digital technology is a formidable driver for the transformation of an old, highly carbon dependent world into one that is more ecologically “smart”. But, for the time being, we are in a period of transition and so the environmental impacts of digital technology are in fact only adding to those of the “old world” (a little like the beginnings of the automobile when it added to the problems of horse drawn transport). So, digital technology needs to be given the time to fully realise its potential. To condemn it now on ecological grounds reveals a lack of judgement and would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Incidentally, these analyses that result in accusations (in the form of forecasts based on a period of observation that is far too short) are not based on any proven scientific methodology and neither do they take into account the reductions either already achieved or currently ongoing.

So, digital technology is everywhere, but it is also in a development phase – through the growing number of uses – and in a transition phase through the gradual long term replacement of an old, industrial world that will eventually no longer exist in the form that it does today. This is indeed a complete paradigm shift and the robust progress made by digital technology towards its phase of maturity will result in positive long term effects, which will be far more significant.

The operators themselves, organised into various bodies to help them cooperate and share best practices, must manage this double movement. In 2017, in cooperation with the UN body the International Telecommunication Union and the consultancy Carbone 4, Orange launched the development of a methodology for the ICT sector in order to channel its contribution towards achieving the 2-degree target of the Paris Agreement.

This initiative is part of an ever wider range of initiatives taken individually or collectively by all the players in the digital sector. A movement that leads to 3 major observations:

  • the actions taken on the energy front are already producing concrete results as they are helping us to stabilise the curves that would inevitably have exploded had we done nothing,
  • they demonstrate that this transition phase is helping to anticipate what are on the face of it unfavourable changes, providing that all the players in the digital sector make a collective commitment,
  • lastly, they all illustrate in their own way, against a backdrop of ever faster innovations, a rapid growth in demand and a much needed transition, the migration from an “old”, industrial and highly energy intensive world towards a more responsible world aligned with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the desire to preserve resources.

The operators, and especially Orange, are utterly committed to this dynamic.