In early April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the third part of its sixth report, devoted to mitigating the consequences of global warming. The authors warn that it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius without an immediate and radical reduction in CO2 emissions in all sectors, from industry to agriculture to construction, without forget the energy sector itself. Based on their scenarios, the scientists believe, however, that there is still time to act. “If we make the right choices in policy, infrastructure and technology, we can change our lifestyles and behaviors, leading to a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2050, says Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III. We could thus realize a huge potential for reducing emissions. It has also been established that these lifestyle changes can improve our health and well-being”.
> The page dedicated to the 3rd part of the 6th IPCC report
The ambivalence of digital
Omnipresent in all sectors and a key driver of their transformation and innovation, digital technologies unsurprisingly figure prominently on many occasions in the report based on thousands of scientific publications. The general observation of the experts is ambivalent. On the one hand, they recognize the potential of sensors, connected objects, robotics or AI to contribute to sustainable development goals and better use of energy. “Digital technologies have significant potential to contribute to decarbonization due to their ability to increase energy and material efficiency, make transportation and building systems less wasteful, and improve access to services for consumers and citizens,” they explain.
On the other side, they point out that digitization can drive demand for goods and services and increase e-waste. “Digital technology only supports decarbonization if managed appropriately,” they warn in the management summary.
On the 3000 pages of the report, the impact of digitization is addressed more specifically in the areas of energy, new consumption patterns and innovation. With regard to the first point, the authors believe that the digitization of the energy system will make it possible to increase the security and resilience of supply, but also to increase its efficiency through the collection and analysis of data and a real-time optimization.
The purchase-sale of energy between peers based on digital technologies (blockchain, smart contracts, smart meters, etc.) is also seen as a key element of the electricity systems of tomorrow: “This trade will allow consumers to pilot system operations, it will increase efficiency and security of supply and reduce emissions without sacrificing user privacy.
In terms of consumption, the document notes the savings in energy and resources that can be obtained by the provision of digital services (by moving bits and not atoms), as well as the contribution of platforms to shaping demand for goods and more sustainable services. In particular, they highlight the ability of digital technology to identify and exchange excess resources, optimize service delivery, and enable rapid innovation cycles to improve performance and respond to changes in behavior. “These features of digitalization enable new business models and services that influence both the demand for services, from carpooling to smart heating, and the way services are delivered, from markets online farms to peer-to-peer power exchanges enabling distributed power systems,” describe the authors.
The report also notes the ability of digital to energize and extend to developed countries the concepts of sharing and circular economy (Uber, Airbnb, waste exchange, just-in-time production, etc.). For the authors, these trends share the goal of “increasing convenience for users and making economic systems more resource efficient.”
Energy, waste and rebound effects
At the same time, the authors highlight three negative effects of digitization. First, at the energy level, consumer devices, data centers and networks represent between 6 and 12% of global electricity consumption, depending on the models applied. The authors thus fear that “improvements in energy efficiency will be overtaken by the growing demand for digital services, especially as data-intensive technologies – artificial intelligence, smart grids, distributed manufacturing systems , autonomous vehicles – promise to increase demand for data services even further in the future”.
Secondly in terms of waste. According to studies, e-waste is the fastest growing household waste stream globally.
Thirdly, at the level of the rebound or demand effects induced by the digital transition. The report gives as an example teleworking “which reduces emissions when long and/or energy-intensive journeys are avoided, but which can lead to a net increase in emissions in cases where greater use of non-work vehicles takes place or when only short, low-emission journeys (e.g. via public transport) are avoided”. Ditto for 3D printing which may require more emissions-intensive concrete formulations or result in reduced thermal energy efficiency. Or on-demand scooters that risk replacing journeys otherwise affected by public transport and come with significant energy needs for rebalancing the system at night.
Better impact monitoring
If the IPCC report points the finger at certain energy-intensive technologies such as crypto-currencies or AI, the observation is most often ambivalent, the positive effects of digital being counterbalanced by their direct, indirect, even systemic and therefore negative impacts. difficult to estimate. “The digitization of the economy is often cited as offering new opportunities for mitigation, but knowledge and evidence are still limited – such as understanding the role of smart applications and the potentials and influence of disruptive technologies on the side of demand and supply on GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions”, explain the authors. There is therefore no general truth, as illustrated by the field of mobility: the on-demand VTC service such as Uber increases GHG emissions due to empty trips, while carpooling tends to reduce them thanks to levels of higher occupancy.
In addition to the essential efforts to reduce direct energy demand (datacenters, user equipment) and the use of green energies, the authors of the report recommend much better monitoring of the impact of the solutions deployed: “Guaranteeing the advantages of he efficiency of digital services while avoiding possible rebound effects and other surges in demand will require early and proactive public policies to avoid excessive use of energy, which will also require investments in data collection and systems. monitoring to ensure that net mitigation benefits are realized and unintended consequences can be identified quickly and properly managed,” the experts explain.
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