Digital Changes Everything: Addressing the Elephant in the Room

April 24th, 2015 Posted by Blogs No Comment yet

On the 16th of February 2015 I sat on the panel for the 2020 Climate Group lecture, Digital Changes Everything. The premise of the event was a discussion about digital technology and how it can help tackle climate change. It began with Ian Marchant, the chair of the 2020 Climate Group giving an introduction which set the scheme about the pace of change in digital technology and the huge possibilities around this. The main speaker at the lecture was Ian Abbott Donnelly from IBM, who spoke about innovations at IBM around energy efficiency in the home, data transparency around energy and developments in virtual intelligence. Following the main speaker, a panel of five members took the stage to open up discussion around the topic at hand. In addition to myself, Mike Neilson, the Digital Director for the Scottish Government, Hannah Rudman, a Business Transformations and Change Management Consultant, Crispin Holt, Link node, and Ian Marchant, Chair, Scotland’s 2020 Climate Group took seats on the panel. The discussion continued with everyone following the assumption that yes, digital changes everything, and yes, it can help us tackle climate change. There were a few key topics discussed answering questions around data transparency, privacy, public sector data, and energy efficiency. While these discussions were essential, dynamic, and interesting, I felt a very significant elephant in the room that was not being discussed. I need to take a moment and take a bit of responsibility here. I should have been more vocal as a panel member about what I felt was being left out of the conversation. There were four essential parts of any discussion about digital and climate change that were largely neglected that pose real problems to the industry, to our future and to seeing digital technology as a real solution to the climate change challenge, these include: the issue around energy consumption; the issue around electrical waste; the issue around consumption and consumer culture; and the issue around rare minerals and mineral scarcity. While there have been many advances in terms of the efficiency, environmental responsibility and sustainability of the digital world, there are many aspects of it that are progressing too slowly. These are not 2050’s problems, these are today’s problems. There is a shining light, a silver lining to every issue I’m about to discuss, but they are just that and not wholesale solutions. First, the issue of energy consumption. In addition to changing to cleaner, renewable energy, we absolutely MUST reduce our energy usage. We as individuals, we as organization, we as cities, countries, the world needs to reduce our energy consumption. The current shift towards energy-heavy entertainment and communication methods does not support this trend. No matter how many apps are developed to help one be as efficient as possible with their heating at home, or with managing their billing, this does not offset the purchasing of more, bigger, and new energy-consuming materials. While these apps make us feel we’re adapting or progressing with the digital world and low-carbon visions of the future, they are really 75% about consumer convenience and 25% about energy saving and I’d certainly encourage solutions that prioritize in an alternative way. For example, if a lake is being overfished and you’re trying to protect it and you convince the fisherman to stop fishing because you tell him there’s no fish, when there are fish again, he’ll continue to fish in the same place, overfishing the lake again. If you encourage people to prioritise convenience, they will continue to prioritise convenience, and not prioritise the low-carbon secondary benefit of using an app to control your home energy. The silver lining- there is still energy reduction, and in the case of better controlling your heating, its energy reduction from the type of energy we are struggling to replace with renewables, oil and gas. Second, the issue of electrical waste. The electronics ‘genre’ has become like any other consumer product, excessive and disposable. Because the cost has come down and remained affordable for the masses in the 21st century, over the past decade on smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc have been treated in a disposable way. They are not designed to be repaired easily and because of this we have learned the behavior that means they wouldn’t even bother anyways. While there are brilliant new products on the market seeking to address this, like the Fairphone, globally we are still crunching through our electronics like popcorn at the cinema. Our consumption of electronics and digital technology falls right into line with consumption and consumer trends globally, my third concern. We have become so detached from the materials that make up the product, that we see them as they presently are and not as how they got there, as a combination of raw materials, circulated around the world from grower to manufacturer to consumer, built together with energy, packaged in land-fill-to-be, to reach our finger tips for a year or so. We are moving through these products at a rate that poses a really serious problem to our landfill and waste situation as well as seriously questioning the longevity of these resources. The issue of our consumption habits lacks any real hope or alternative, I believe this is the hardest aspect and least likely to change. A recent study pointed out that the United Kingdom will benefit from a transition to a circular economy, however this study still speaks in terms of growth. In order to have growth, more products must be consumed. In order for more products to be consumed, they must be made. Growth in its very nature implies a state that is greater than the current one and so even if all the materials in our phones or tablets are recycled to make new ones we will still need virgin supplies to continue growing supply, sales, and the industry as a whole. Infinite growth needs infinite resources, and we don’t have these. Transitioning to my final point, the issue of rare minerals. We are rapidly running out of the minerals that are used in any new technologies at an alarming rate. If we don’t change the way we consume our electronics, the debate around fossil fuels will become moot as according to current projections we will run out of these far before we run out of fossil fuels. There is very little progress on how to extract these rare minerals from our electronic products, particularly considering the rate that we’re using them up. But it gets worse, many of the minerals in our touch screen culture are also used for the progressive technologies that we need to transition to a low-carbon world, like solar panels. In a world where there’s competition between clean energy (solar panels) and entertainment and communications (smartphones, tablets, etc.) I sincerely hope we are capable of prioritizing correctly. This is not a chicken and egg situation, we need the energy first, digital technology doesn’t work without power, full stop. There is a small glimmer of hope on this issue as a recent European Commission statement announced that progress is happening on recycling some of these rare minerals. If technological advances like this can begin to make sense, AND we can start creating products that are not designed in their very nature to be disposable rather than repairable, we may start to see some progress. The resource scarcity issue is also just the tip of the iceberg, from a holistic sustainability perspective, the rare minerals industry is heading down the same path that the diamond industry. ‘Conflict minerals’, as they are increasingly being referred to, are fuelling conflict in many unstable regions across the globe and will continue to do so at increasing rates as these minerals become more scarce. Ready for another free upgrade on your smartphone, now? Post written by Elizabeth Dirth, 2050 Climate Group

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