Can we reconcile sobriety and digital development?
Today, digital technology accounts for 3.5 % of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While this may seem modest compared with other sectors, the carbon footprint of digital technology could well double by 2025. Its energy impact could also increase as a result of the diversification and widespread use of digital technologies. Against this backdrop, is a more sober and responsible digital future even possible? Interview with Vincent Courboulay, lecturer and researcher at La Rochelle University and Scientific Director of the Institut du Numérique Responsable.
To start, can you explain to us what "sustainable IT" means?
Sustainable IT is a global approach to digital issues that includes the concepts of Green IT and IT for Green. Green IT aims to reduce the social, economic and environmental footprint associated with the use of computers, storage, networks, connected devices, infrastructures and processes handling all kinds of electronic data. With IT for Green, the levers for action are different, since the aim is first and foremost to develop technologies that can directly contribute to environmental transition. In the first instance, the aim is to reduce the negative impact of IT and, in the second, to use IT to bring about a more sustainable world.
Sustainable IT encompasses both. It is the link between digital transition and climate and social emergencies, since this approach involves improving the impact of digital technology and using new technologies to reduce the impact of human activities. It is a truly holistic and systemic approach to digital technology, based on four pillars: people (social), planet (environment), prosperity (economic) and, increasingly, protection, in connection with cyber security issues.
How does the notion of digital sobriety fit into this global approach of sustainable IT?
Digital sobriety is part of sustainable IT and one of the solutions put forward in the latest IPCC report to contribute to decarbonisation by doing less: less consumption, less development, less digital... However, before talking about digital sobriety, I think we need to get out of our current state of digital intoxication. Digital technology is omnipresent in our lives, with services available all the time and everywhere. But do we really need this? Rather than digitalisation at all costs, I am a proponent of wise tech, i.e. the most appropriate technology to meet a clearly identified need. And this technology can be low-tech or high-tech, as long as it is the most suitable one.
Which equipment consumes the most energy today?
Globally, a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the digital sector comes from networks and data centres. Half of the remainder is linked to the manufacture of connected terminals and the other half to the use made of them by users. Among the most polluting equipment are televisions, monitors, laptops and, to a lesser extent, smartphones. In other words, anything with a screen – and the larger they are, the more they pollute.
Yet the proliferation and renewal of this equipment is increasing the depletion of resources. A study by Ademe and Arcep published in March 2023 points out that, without action to limit the growth in the environmental impact of digital technology, its carbon footprint could triple by 2050. It's a useful and necessary study that sheds light on our state of digital intoxication and its consequences; but I think it must be put into perspective. A lot can change between now and 2030 – and even more so between now and 2050 – which is why these projections need to be considered against rising energy costs and finite resources. Personally, I think the limits pointed out will be reached well before these dates.
What levers do we have at our disposal to make digital uses and equipment more energy-efficient?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer or silver bullet. I prefer the idea of a path based on four levers for shaping a better future: understanding, measuring, deciding and acting. Understanding what digital technology is and what is at stake is the basis of everything: we have to understand that the impact is not the same between buying a computer and sending an email, and for this, communication and raising awareness are key. We then need to be able to measure this impact, with scaling mechanisms and tools such as energy labels and eco-scores to guide our day-to-day choices. The third lever is the decision and, more specifically, the courage to take concrete measures at a societal, legal and organisational level to improve the impact of digital technology. Lastly, comes the time for action, which consists first of avoiding and then reducing to get out of our state of digital intoxication.
And this applies to everyone: citizens, businesses and governments. Broadly speaking, if citizens act alone, they will solve 20% of the problem, governments 40% and businesses 40%. The only way to change the situation is to bring these three parties together to form a collective committed to the same goal. That said we must not overlook the fact that the entry point to sobriety today is the wallet. It's not a chosen sobriety but an economic sobriety in the face of rising energy and resource costs.
Isn’t it contradictory to think that digital technology can contribute to the ecological transition when new developments, around AI or 6G for example, require a lot of power?
We need to stop opposing digital solutions against sobriety. All avenues need to be explored, taking into account the contribution of digital solutions and their impact, without falling into the simplistic trap of saying that the only valid solution is sobriety or, conversely, technological innovation. Digital technology has its place in helping us meet the major challenges in terms of health, food and resource preservation.
There are Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions capable of finding new formulas for medicines, detecting diseases or even modelling the state of the planet using highly sophisticated computing grids. The real question to ask is not "is there a more interesting path to explore than another?" but “in what context and for what needs do we want to deploy these solutions?”
Not forgetting, of course, to take into account that user behaviour is also part of the equation. When you think about it, do we really need to digitise everything, store so many photos, automate our homes or have a box that stays on all night? Once again, it's all about wise tech.
How is the issue of responsible digital technology perceived across the European Union?
As far as the European landscape is concerned, I would say that France is ahead of the game in terms of regulations, and is relying on the work of researchers and associations, such as l’Institut du Numérique Responsable, to develop skills in this area. The rest of Europe is looking more towards the IT for Green initiative, with its desire to quantify the indirect effects of digital technology, its benefits and its limits, using a methodology and quantified data. So, we are not looking for greater digital sobriety, but rather for reasoned and enlightened usage in order to respond positively to environmental, social and economic challenges.
In any case, approaching digital technology from just one angle is doomed to fail. We must look at it from all angles; we must understand that a change at one level has an impact on all levels, and therefore treat the subject as a whole by encouraging a wide range of researches, approaches and solutions that will ultimately complement each other.
Finally, what does the ideal digital world look like?
It is a digital world that is balanced and inclusive, that respects users, does not think for them and does not see them as an integration variable. It is also a decentralised digital technology, which is not at the centre of everything, and that we use wisely when we need it. Lastly, it is a digital world that is less bipolar, that is not caught between the United States on one side and China on the other, and that embodies European values to a greater extent. In short, a digital world that fully integrates the pillars of people, planet, prosperity and protection.
3 questions to Walter Boulain, CFO of LuxTrust
How is LuxTrust addressing the issue of sustainable IT?
Sustainable IT is an integral part of our CSR roadmap. We are taking action at various levels, starting with a collective effort to raise awareness and encourage more sustainable practices, both in terms of behaviour and business lines. Every 2 years, for example, our developers are trained in Green IT and learn to code in accordance with environmentally responsible criteria. This enables us to develop high-performance, less energy-intensive and more environmentally friendly solutions for our customers.
This is not a new subject at LuxTrust either. As early as 2018, we worked on a new application that was originally focused on the blockchain technology. However, as this technology is not proprietary, we could not foresee at that time the carbon and energy impact it could generate in the years to come. So, we decided to replace it with an in-house solution over which we would have full control in terms of both efficiency for our customers and environmental performance. The result is the current version of IDKeep, our digital platform for collecting personal data and consent under the GDPR regulation.
LuxTrust's solutions involve managing large volumes of data. What are your main sources of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, and how can they be reduced?
Our main sources are the data centres where all of our customers' data is managed, stored and processed, as well as the terminals we use. As a company in the ICT sector, which generates twice as many emissions as aviation globally, it is our responsibility to work towards a more virtuous digital world. At LuxTrust, we do this by choosing data centres that are committed to reduce their emissions and energy consumption.
Our partner EBRC has deployed an entire strategy aimed at reducing the impact of its data centres as much as possible, both technologically and functionally (infrastructure cooling using recycled water, renewable electricity, etc.). The choice of our partners is therefore paramount in reducing the impact of our own solutions while meeting the increased needs of our clients. We are also investing internally and are taking steps to extend the shelf life of our terminals as much as possible, while meeting the security requirements imposed on us as a PFS (Professional of the Financial Sector).
Why is sustainable IT a strategic matter for LuxTrust?
It is a strategic matter because it affects both our CSR roadmap and the development of our projects. While our services are now accessible 24 hours a day, we are working on technologies that will streamline and optimise our energy consumption. Based on our customers' habits, we want to use data analysis to model the times when our services are the most and the least used, or when they are not used at all, so that we can mobilise our resources at the right time rather than all the time. Just as energy suppliers’ factor in peaks and troughs to control their networks, our aim will be to be flexible enough to move towards more frugal digital uses, while at the same time raise our customers' awareness of these issues. Technological innovation must go hand in hand with teaching our clients how to best use our solutions but also how to use them more responsibly.
In doing so, we are also fulfilling our role as a pioneer showing the way forward in our industry. It is a role that we take very seriously, and one that also reflects our commitment to corporate social responsibility. In this area, we are determined to give more structure to our CSR strategy. For example, we are going to continue reducing our carbon footprint, raising awareness of sustainable IT challenges amongst our employees, systematising reporting on our non-financial indicators, supporting associations on digital inclusion issues, and driving sustainable IT behaviours by participating in dedicated working groups. I am convinced that the response to the climate crisis lies not only technological, but depends on the way we combine technology and the way we use it.
This article has been translated and edited from the original published in French by LuxTrust.