Digitalisation is part of the transition to a green economy, yet data centers use an inordinate amount of energy and raw materials. Illustration: Salomé Jottreau

Digitalisation is part of the transition to a green economy, yet data centers use an inordinate amount of energy and raw materials. Illustration: Salomé Jottreau

Digital services are described as immaterial or virtual; yet the creation, processing, storage and movement of data rely extensively on finite resources: electricity, water, metals, chemicals and manmade materials, such as plastics and glass.

Information and communications technology (ICT) has undoubtedly made our lives easier, increasing international connectivity and cross-border business activity. Demand for technology hardware--mobile phones, printers, servers, computers, Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices, smart home security systems, autonomous farming equipment, wearable health monitors, etc., is on the rise. This implies creating, moving, processing and storing an ever-increasing amount of data around the world. Artificial intelligence and machine learn- ing also require vast computing powers, data processing and digital infrastructures.

The amount of data in the world is estimated to reach 74 zettabytes by the end of 2021, and Finance Online states that it will double by the end of 2024. In addition to the extensive quantities of finite resources going into the production of digital products and services, accelerated technological obsolescence creates dangerous, highly toxic e-waste dumps, contaminating land, water and air. According to the World Economic Forum, 50m tonnes of e-waste are created, and estimations pinpoint 120m tonnes annually by 2050. Due to technological breakouts, processors are increasingly performant and energy efficient. Likewise, cooling technologies consume less energy. However, the direct energy consumption invested in digital technology has increased by 37% since 2010, requires 10% of the electricity produced in the world and, by 2030, it will consume 20%. With the current global climate crisis, we cannot continue supporting the same old Nimby policies, and in the context of a digitalised economy, we must now acknowledge the hidden costs behind our screens.

Luxembourg’s boisterous drive to digitalisation

In Luxembourg, the covid-19 crisis accelerated the introduction of digital public services for business and private individuals. 15 years ago, Clive Humby acknowledged that data is the new oil. Thus, Luxembourg is actively investing in new technologies and, in 2019, launched a data-driven innovation strategy to develop a trusted and sustainable, competitive, digitalised economy and an AI strategy. By investing in key sectors such as AI, blockchain technologies, supercomputers and big data analytics, the economy will attract new investors, create numerous opportunities and turn the grand duchy into a circular financial hub. In June this year, the same ministry published the roadmap for a competitive and sustainable economy 2025, emphasising Luxembourg’s ambition to become a leader in the full digitalisation of key strategic sectors.

Both documents, however, mention sustainability and sustainable development only in the context of the national economy. Also, the creation of a circular economy is sought solely within the national context. Digitalisation shall accomplish the transition to a green economy, and although ensuring an energy-efficient and sustainable digital transition is one of the “building blocks” of the roadmap, it drafts no clear actions aimed at reducing the industry’s environmental footprint.

Luxembourg recently launched the Meluxina supercomputer, Europe’s greenest high-performance computer. The super- computer’s up to 100,000 multiple-thread processors are built with modules from China, the number one global manufacturer. These modules are used to build all ICT and IoT devices, and China’s industry continues to be, to a great extent, powered by coal and lignite. Meluxina is fuelled by the neighbouring cogeneration Kiowatt plant that allegedly burns the 39,000 tonnes of yearly wood waste from Luxembourg. Yet wood waste has to be transported to the plant, and it has to be cut into pellets, which inevitably has an environmental impact. Moreover, some scientists argue that burning wood pellets releases as much or even more CO2 into the atmosphere as coal. The government of Luxembourg “has the ambition to transform the country into a living lab for applied AI”, failing to recognise that the deep learning process of training an AI model can emit nearly five times the life emissions of an average car, i.e., 284,000kg CO2. Last year, Bissen’s municipal council approved the change in general development plans needed for the construction of Google’s Luxembourg data centre. The project will encompass only a third of the 34ha site bought by the tech giant.

Environmental NGO Mouvement Écologique (Meco) argued that the data centre could use 12% of the country’s electricity and use up about the same amount of water resources for cooling. The municipal council claimed that this energy will also come from the Kiowatt plant, with a debatable reduced environmental impact. The centre will use wastewater for cooling; however, coolants made of hazardous chemicals will still be needed, and their disposal could pollute water resources, soil, and damage the ozone layer. In January 2021, the ministry of environment issued an administrative notice concerning the scoping of the environmental impact assessment in the case of the data centre in Bissen. The ministry declared that they received no feedback on the tech giant’s construction projects, the next step towards the achievement of the project.

The data centre’s uninterruptible power supply systems will also need immense batteries to keep the systems online in case of disruptions. These batteries have a limited lifespan, and their manufacture involves destructive mining and hazardous conditions for workers. Meco recently criticised the government’s plans to ensure “sustainable growth” and its strong belief that technological progress is the cure-all solution. Meco argues that the government’s strategy demands colossal energy resources, and renewable energies could never power this economic transition. Meco also denounced the “pink”-hydrogen energy that should ensure the energy transition, as it is produced with highly controversial nuclear power.

Environmental impact at the individual scale

At this stage, it is worthwhile looking at individual-use digital technology and its environmental impact. BBC estimates that each of us is responsible for 414kg CO2 per year in the manufacturing and running of digital technologies. According to Datareportal, there are 612,100 inter- net users in the country, and 410,000 were active social media users. Social media representatives repeatedly highlighted that they use green technology and emphasised their engagement in promoting green consumption. Yet the environmental impact of their use is not inconsequential: one minute on TikTok emits almost 5g CO2, Pinterest 3.6g CO2, and Snapchat 2.1g CO2. Talking on the phone for a minute emits 57g CO2. Our environmental impact does not only involve CO2 emissions.

In the 1990s, the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy developed a method for calculating the material input per service unit (MIPS), i.e., the number of resources needed to manufacture a product or a service. The research estimated that one minute of a telephone call has an input of 0.207kg, for one SMS the input is 0.632kg. Watching TV for an hour of television requires 2kg of resources. The replacement cycle of a smartphone is, on average, 21 months; for a PC, this is 4.9 years. When buying the new smart-phone model, we tend to overlook that the manufacture of a smartphone needs up to 60 metals out of the whole 90 existing. Likewise, the production of a laptop uses 50 elements existing on Earth. Moreover, repeatedly rinsing--more than 30 times--of printed circuit boards requires 33 tonnes of water per PC and more than 1.2 tonnes for semiconductors. The digitalisation of the economy was found to negatively impact the environment as well. A study found that, on average, in a year, a user consumes 5,740kWh, emits 800kg greenhouse gas, uses 13,910l of water and creates 3kg e-waste. According to the WEF, there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of smartphones than in a tonne of gold ore.

Where to next?

The dematerialisation of the economy and the transition to a data-driven economy come at a great cost to our environment. Being aware of the environmental impact of our daily online interactions, that streaming a video online requires information to travel around the world to access GAFAM (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft) data centres powered by fossil fuels and coal, might make us think twice before sending that pointless email and releasing another 50g CO2 into the atmosphere. We must rethink our way of life and consume more sustainably or, as Sir David Attenborough points out, face the fact that “we have a moral responsibility to do something about thousands of women and children who lost everything” because of our choices.

This November, Paris hosts the Data Center World gathering, where professionals from the tech industry will promote products and solutions to build the data centres of the future. Sweden and Finland have already designed data centres that reuse the heat they produce to power homes. In 2018, Microsoft launched Project Natick and is currently experimenting with underwater data centres. Will Luxembourg’s government follow Meco’s recommendations and acknowledge the urgency of a paradigm shift?

This article was originally published in the

Sources We Green IT study – World Wide Fund for Nature, 2018; World Economic Forum report – A New Circular Vision for Electronics, 2019; Luxembourg Ministry of Economy – The Data-Driven Innovation Strategy for the Development of a Trusted and Sustainable economy in Luxembourg, 2019; Ons Wirtschaft vu muer, June 2021; AI watch – European Commission; – Stellungnahme – Statt Worten und Lippenbekenntnissen: reelle Taten in der zweiten Hälfte der Legislaturperiode! October 2021; BBC – Why your internet habits are not as clean as you think, January 2021; Ritthoff, Michael, Rohn, Holger and Liedtke, Christa Calculating MIPS: Resource productivity of product and services, 2002