Twin Transformations in the EU: Clean Energy Must Power Digitalisation

As our lives become more digital and our energy greener, by acknowledging their interrelated nature, the EU has a key role to play in ensuring this results in a more sustainable Europe.

Author Jan Wisniewski, 08.20.18

Translation Jan Wisniewski:

As our lives become more digital and our energy greener, by acknowledging their interrelated nature, the EU has a key role to play in ensuring this results in a more sustainable Europe.

The European Commission recently committed three billion EUR in the next long-term EU budget to support state-of-the-art digital infrastructure in Europe. The EU’s goal is to create a Digital Single Market, that is, “tearing down regulatory walls and moving from 28 national markets to a single one”. The union sees this as the best way to allow the citizens, business and governments of its member states to benefit from the advantages that the internet and digital technologies can bring. This three billion EUR is part of the new ‘Connecting Europe Facility’, which will be used to improve digital connectivity infrastructure to meet “ever-increasing demand for high-capacity networks and infrastructure in electronic communications”.

But digital technologies are not the only focus of the EU. A Commission press release states that the Connecting Europe Facility aims to “better integrate the transport, energy and digital sectors, in order to accelerate the decarbonisation and digitalisation of the EU’s economy”. Therefore, funding is also planned to support investment for infrastructure networks for clean transport (30.6 billion EUR) and green energy (8.7 billion EUR)

This is a great example of how long-term planning can connect different objectives. Here it’s the EU’s wish to promote two transitions within its territory: 1. to a digital economy and 2. to clean and renewable energies.

Dirty digital?

This holistic approach acknowledges that digitalisation is not intrinsically linked to decarbonisation. A move away from industrial to data-based activities powered by the internet does give the impression that we’re leaving behind the high-polluting 20th century, but we must not forget that digital technologies use a huge amount of energy and producing energy has traditionally produced a lot of carbon.

Climate Home News reported findings from a team led by Swedish researcher Anders Andrae that suggested the information and communications technology (ICT) industry could be responsible for up to 3.5 per cent of global emissions by 2020 (that’s more than aviation and shipping combined). This electricity usage comes from manufacturing and powering our devices, communications infrastructure and, most notoriously, data centres. Physical data centres, or server farms, are needed to store the digital data of internet-connected devices. These buildings, filled with computer processors, consume large amounts of energy to keep these processors running and to prevent them from overheating. The above-mentioned research predicted the exponential growth of internet-connected devices could see ICT creating up to 14 per cent of global emissions by 2040, which is around the same proportion the US is responsible for today.

The need to reduce the electricity footprint of the ICT industry has been highlighted by the Greenpeace campaign Clicking Green. Greenpeace began monitoring the energy performance of the sector in 2009, and since then Facebook, Apple, and Google have made 100 per cent renewable commitments along with nearly 20 other internet companies.

The role of policy and public funding in digital for good

With the expectation that by 2030 32 per cent of all energy in Europe will be produced from renewable sources, the EU aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions “as early as possible”. At the same time, the union is pushing for the further digitalisation of the economy. Therefore, the commitments made by large ICT companies to reducing energy-related emissions will be music to the ears of EU policy makers. However, the EU has a crucial role to play in implementing regulations that restrict carbon emissions and incentivising the private sector to clean up their energy use. In a recent speech from EU Commissioner Arias Cañete, he insisted much of the “necessary investment in the clean energy transition will come from private sector,” but he also emphasised the role that policy-makers have in providing a legislative framework for them, and supporting them with funding.

He also highlighted how innovation and technological advances have increased the use of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency. The potential for digitalisation to improve our lives and ensure future generations can enjoy a stable and beautiful planet is real, but we must keep working to reduce the emissions from the energy sources powering these digital technologies.

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