‘Digital is not green. It is a hidden accelerant of global warming’

19 Feb 2021

Gerry McGovern. Image: Alin Dobrin

Author and digital expert Gerry McGovern talks about how rising levels of e-waste and digital pollution may be killing the planet.

Read more Sustainability Week stories on Silicon Republic.

When we think about creating a more sustainable world and reducing waste, we don’t often think about the waste we create digitally. Sure, not printing that email might be more eco-friendly than wasting physical paper, but that doesn’t mean email has no environmental impact.

Digital expert Gerry McGovern is a speaker and consultant who co-founded Nua, one of Ireland’s first digital consultancies in the 1990s. He has also written eight books, the latest being World Wide Waste about how digital waste is killing the planet.

McGovern believes that there is a massive misconception around the idea that digitising things causes less or even no waste. He said he even believed it himself for a long time.

“I just took it as a given that digital was green,” he told Siliconrepublic.com. “But the more I researched, the more the underside of digital emerged, the more I have come to believe that digital is a hidden accelerant of global warming, and a driver of a whole range of really bad human habits.”

‘Many digital products are deliberately designed to make it difficult for them to repair or recycle. This is a recipe for disaster’

While much of society has been turned towards the ‘think before you print’ mindset, focusing on physical products such as paper and plastic when reducing waste, people often shrug off this mindset when it comes to digital waste.

How quickly would you subscribe to all those newsletters if they physically came through your letterbox every month, every week, or even every day?

McGovern references this problem in World Wide Waste, noting that it can often become a case of downloading without consumption, particularly when things are free online. There is data that is never used, web pages that are never found and apps that only get used a couple of times. But all of these things rely on energy and leave a carbon footprint.

“We produce far too much low-quality data and software in the digital industry. We just churn out code, content and data. We store everything we can,” McGovern said.

“Over 25 years, I’ve worked in 40 countries with hundreds of organisations. I can’t think of one that truly, professionally managed their data. And data is growing at totally unsustainable levels. We will soon be dealing with thousands of zettabytes of data – truly unimaginable quantities.”

According to a 2019 UN report, the world also produces as much as 50m tonnes of electronic and electrical waste every year, and only 20pc is formally recycled. Recent EU figures revealed that large household appliances make up more than half of all collected e-waste in Europe, followed by IT equipment such as laptops and printers.

“Digital has horribly short product life cycles,” McGovern said. “In fact, many digital products are deliberately designed to make it difficult for them to repair or recycle. This is a recipe for disaster.

“Digital is not green. Digital is electrical, meaning that everything we do in digital consumes energy and creates pollution.”

McGovern acknowledged that stopping the use of modern technology altogether in order to slow down global heating is an unrealistic goal. However, he claimed that the digital industry has gotten away with a certain amount of greenwashing and downplaying its environmental impact. “That needs to stop,” he said.

While the knock-on effects of the pandemic have reduced pollution levels, McGovern said the spike in internet usage during this period may still cause other problems.

Undoubtedly, having a meeting over Zoom is much less polluting than driving or flying to the meeting,” he said, but added that “digital gives with one hand and takes with another”.

He cited a recent Yale study, which estimated that internet usage increased by up to 40pc worldwide from January through March 2020. According to the study, this triggered a demand for up to 42.6m megawatt-hours of additional electricity to support data transmission and to power data centres.

“It estimated that offsetting the increase in internet usage in 2020 requires a forest twice the size of Portugal, enough water to fill 317,200 Olympic-size swimming pools, and a land footprint the size of Los Angeles,” said McGovern.

Changing attitudes about data

When it comes to the tech industry’s environmental impact, McGovern said that companies are becoming more conscious about sustainability but their actions can often “border on smugness”.

“It’s like the industry is saying: ‘We may be encouraging a culture of waste and disposability but we’re doing it with renewable energy and look at how much more energy efficient our data centres have become at storing all this crap data we’re producing’.”

So, what is McGovern’s advice for the digital industry? “Stop, ease back, think. Properly manage data, and that begins with deciding what data not to create, what data not to collect. Clean up old data, put proper metadata on it, archive properly and get rid of useless data.”

For consumers, he advises buying technology with the longest possible warranty, and devices that are repairable and recyclable. “Hold onto technology as long as possible – this is by far the most important single thing you can do. Hold onto your phone, your computer, your server as long as possible.”

McGovern said that digital is, by its nature, an accelerant. This means that humans must intervene when it comes to stopping it from killing the planet. “Left to its own devices, digital accelerates much that is worst about humanity: the urge to mindlessly create and consume, to hoard, to buy what is cheap and flashy, and to be addicted to fast and easy convenience,” he said.

“If we can become a lot more considered and think with much longer time frames, we can use digital in a way that it genuinely supports sustainability.”

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic