The growing environmental impact of digital technologies

Digital technologies have undoubtedly been helping reduce the environmental impact of some sectors, such as transport through teleworking or buildings through “smart building” technologies. However, this is only one side of the coin. The other is the impacts generated by the digital world itself.

A study carried out by Belkhir and Elmeligi in 2018 estimated the growing impact – in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – associated with the impressive development of the ICT sector in the last decade. According to the authors, from 2010 to 2020 the contribution of this sector to the total global GHG emissions has roughly doubled, rising from 1,4-1,9% to 3-3,6% and thus exceeding emissions from air transport (2,8% in 2019, as stated by IEA). It is predicted to continue growing exponentially, exceeding 14% in 2040, if not controlled through effective measures. When analyzing the contribution of different technologies to the GHG emissions of the overall ICT sector, the study found that data centers make up the lion’s share. This industry grew its contribution to the total worldwide carbon footprint of the sector from 33% in 2010 to 45% in 2020. In absolute terms, it is a three-fold increase in only ten years, from about 160 Mt-CO2eq to nearly 500 Mt-CO2eq.

To know more about the research methodology and results, see the research paper by Belkhir and Elmeligi.

ICT global GHGE footprint as a percentage of total global footprint (primary axis), and in absolute values in MteCO2-eq on the secondary axis.
Source: L. Belkhir, A. Elmeligi, Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations