Just ten years ago, the subject of the environmental impact of digital technology was confined to a handful of specialists. Over the past few years, however, the subject has gained considerable momentum, particularly in France but also internationally. While some people are (rightly) concerned about the preponderance of discourse around net zero and carbon neutrality, this trend is merely a symptom of a biased approach to the subject.
Reducing a global crisis to a technical problem
The climate emergency is a key issue that has gained enormous momentum in recent years. The digital sector has not been spared, and studies and tools have made many people aware of the issue. The problem is alarming, but also complex, which is why some aspects have been lost along the way in favor of broader awareness.
In the case of digital services, it is understood that an LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) is an excellent way of estimating environmental impacts, but the process can prove cumbersome and costly. Defining the scope, selecting the indicators, collecting and analyzing the data. The complexity is all the more difficult to take into account when you want results quickly and, preferably, easily communicated. So, to gain in efficiency, some choose to measure only part of their digital services, thanks to easy-to-use tools. In just a few clicks, you have your answer and can share it.
This is also why solutions are being developed that analyze code to suggest ways of improving it to reduce its environmental impact. Some are even beginning to rely on artificial intelligence for this purpose.
It’s also what prompts some to optimize where their code will be executed, to move towards a location where energy has less impact from an environmental point of view (taking into account, of course, only greenhouse gas emissions). And what can’t be avoided or reduced can always be compensated for.
In the end, it’s all very human. Faced with a complex and urgent problem, we try to simplify and adopt or find a quick solution. That’s not a bad thing, but we can’t stop there. All the more so when some people rely on claims of “net zero” and carbon neutrality to artificially draw a finish line that can be reached via clever calculations and investments, whereas the problem is systemic by nature.
The risk here is of optimizing one indicator while degrading others that we didn’t have in mind (for example, requesting a data center presented as carbon neutral without taking into account its impact on water resources). As a result, we’re increasingly asking ourselves whether a sober site is necessarily ugly, without realizing that it’s not always accessible. Or really sober, for that matter.
The environmental impacts of digital technology are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions. As we see in LCA, the indicators to be taken into account are much more numerous and varied. Little by little, we are also having to take into account the criticality of certain mineral resources, as well as that of water (as we saw recently with ChatGPT and Google’s data centers).
The environmental impact of digital services doesn’t just come from the code. In fact, according to GreenIT.fr, only around 20% of the impact comes from the code. Which makes perfect sense. Through code, we seek to improve efficiency (doing better with less). The real levers for reduction are to be found in the other stages of the lifecycle, notably design, strategy and content production. In this way, we can move towards sobriety for good.
Finally, the impacts of digital technology are not only environmental, and this is the heart of Responsible Digital. We need to keep in mind the impact on the individual (via accessibility, security, personal data management, the attention economy, ethics and inclusion). So, managing the climate emergency can only be done with an intersectional approach.
The technical approach is not necessarily bad in itself. It’s a good thing to have effective solutions to improve the efficiency of digital services (as long as we keep in mind the possible side-effects). Sometimes, it’s even an excellent starting point for taking initial action, initiating a continuous improvement process and getting to grips with the subject.
On the other hand, it’s essential to go further. This is what we see today in movements around Sustainable UX, responsible communication and even responsible digital marketing, for example. We are also seeing the emergence of resources and books on “green service design” and systemic design.
As we’ve already seen when examining the offerings of web hosting providers, the reality of the environmental impact of digital technology is more complex than it might seem. The problem won’t be solved with a single click, and perhaps that’s just as well. In fact, it’s an opportunity to rethink digital technology, the way we use it and the way we think about it. These constraints may well give rise to a digital world that is more respectful not only of the environment, but also of individuals.
After working for more than 15 years in web development, Laurent Devernay became a technical consultant in responsible digital technology at Greenspector. When he is not coaching organizations on the eco-design of their digital services, he teaches courses on digital sobriety technologies.