Digital and environment: threat or opportunity?

On 28 November, in the context of COP 25, the Digital Society Forum (DSF) organised an open debate: "Digital and environment: threat or opportunity?” echoing the growing concerns citizens around the world. The roundtable discussions were led by business leaders, economists, journalists, teachers, students and bloggers. To gain valuable insights and feed our ideas, here are the highlights and possible solutions.

The Digital Society Forum debate as if we were there :

Let’s start with Angel Prieto, Ecole Polytechnique graduate and member of the "pour un réveil ecologique" collective, which is a commitment signed by more than 30,000 students in 400 educational institutions in Europe. The group offers concrete tools to help young graduates live up to their eco-citizenship commitments as adults and therefore target companies who contribute to the environmental and ecological transition. To avoid any risk, the tool also allows them to pass companies through a green washing : “It is a real challenge for us to measure the impact of digital technology and make informed career choices” says Angel Prieto.

Daniel Cohen, an economist, highlights what is known as the “digital transition”. For him, it can be divided into two periods :

  • The first digital transition, which over the course of the last 30 years has led to enormous growth in world trade: international trade has grown more than domestic production This is the image we have of fleets of ships laden with containers crisscrossing the world’s seas. The catchphrase is trade delocalisation. But according to  Daniel Cohen the indicators are showing that this period is coming to an end. 
  • A second period is emerging, which is more compatible with the ecological transition. This is what he calls the AI (Artificial Intelligence) revolution: “AI is the way to find other frontiers in a stagnating global economy, one that can re-anchor itself within the walls while the other model is outside the walls.”

But is digital technology key in the climate change debate? Which sectors have the greatest environmental impact? According to several stakeholders, it is those related to transportation, housing, agriculture, industry, manufacturing and energy consumption. “Digital is responsible for 3.5% of CO2 emissions, but we must also look at it as a solution, with potential reductions in other sectors such as transport,” argues Luis Neves, CEO of GeSI.

Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange, confirms:, “If due to its growing carbon footprint the tech sector is part of the problem, telecommunications is also and above all an essential part of carbon reduction. The Group is committed to a continual reduction in our overall energy consumption, despite our growing uses.

So how and in what way can digital become a solution?

For Luis Neves: “As« comme le disait Stéphane Richard has said, digital technology contributes to reducing the carbon footprint of other sectors. The progress made by today’s technologies will result in a positive environmental impact of around 22% by 2030.

For Anna Creti: “It’s a difficult equation to solve, but there are already examples such as through digital finance. In Africa, for example, it’s possible for people to access energy through e-payment methods.”

Mathilde Imer, Co-chair of Démocratie Ouverte of the governance committee for the Citizens’ Climate Convention questions: “Is it not up to citizens to insist on it?”. In real terms, she notes that, in France, there are a few climate change sceptics, but we’re all in a little denial in terms of the magnitude of the challenge. So for six weekends, 150 citizens representing French society are getting together to deliberate and create climate policies. Among the first solutions emerging from these groups: teleworking, which avoids business travel (no. 1 in terms of greenhouse gas production).” There’s also a call to “regulate advertising on the most polluting products, introduce a ‘kilometre tax’ on other products according to the distance they have travelled…”

Laëtitia Vasseur, general-delegate and co-founder of the HOP explains: “The issue of digital technology is very important in our work. The product life depends on technical characteristics and software updates. For a product such as a phone, 80% of its carbon footprint comes from manufacturing. We must replace the linear economy that produces a lot of waste and CO2 and move towards a circular economy.”  

Carlo Purassanta, President of Microsoft France, underlines the strong challenges and concrete responses that digital technology offers: “EnBy 2050, the world population will be 9 billion: how do we produce enough quality food? How can IT help solve this issue? ‘Precision farming’ technology can help manage food resources. It’s already used in countries facing extreme climates such as the Nordics and Emirates.”

Finally, for Eric Vidalenc, author of “For a digital economy”, it’s not just about optimising the system, but also about drastically transforming it.