Accelerating environmental sustainability in a digital world

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If well-considered and applied carefully, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have the potential to help humanity meet our global environmental and climate targets by accelerating and scaling collective action.

Various sources have indicated this including:

  • Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) which estimates that the smart use of ICT could enable up to a 20% reduction of global CO2 emissions by 2030 across 5 major sectors.

  • The RethinkX programme which states that good digital technologies can help reduce the volume of natural resources used in products by around 90% meaning they are efficient and generally support a circular economy and can help reduce the volume of natural resources This can help reduce the impact of material extraction on the environment, and it can reduce pollution and industrial emissions.

  • The RethinkX also found that digital technologies and circular design can help reduce waste and detoxify supply chains by at least 10 times, and up to 100 times.

At the same time, as we try to close the digital divide and bring everyone into the internet era, there will be a huge increase in the use of ICT and related digital infrastructure.

It is essential that we do this carefully and responsibly because our progress digitally could cause 3 major problems environmentally:

1. The ICT sector uses up to 7% of the global electricity consumption and is responsible for up to 2 to 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the growing demand for green energy technologies, the extraction of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by 500% by 2050.

2. In 2019, a record 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was produced (the equivalent weight of 125,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets) which makes e-waste the fastest-growing domestic waste stream. Only 17.4% of e-waste was documented as formally collected and recycled and only 78 countries have legislation on e-waste.

3. At the moment, personalised and location-based algorithmic advertising; peer-to-peer endorsements; gamification; and digital nudging are accelerating consumption rather than driving sustainable behaviours and lifestyles.

Digitalising and scaling environmental sustainability

Digital technology can help us address threats such as global pandemics, climate change, biodiversity loss, land degradation and pollution—but only if we build the infrastructure, standards, digital algorithms, and governance framework with this strategic intent. Multilateral and multi-stakeholder cooperation around a common vision is essential.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has identified 5 priorities to accelerate environmental sustainability through digital channels:

1. Build a digital ecosystem of trusted, open environmental data. At the moment, existing environmental data is fragmented which makes it difficult to integrate into the emerging data infrastructure. We need a digital ecosystem for the planet that enables real-time monitoring and predictive analytics of the global environmental situation so that it’s possible to assess progress towards our collective environmental goals. This requires licences, standards, infrastructure and safeguards to protect quality, security and maintain public trust.

2. Align finance and investments to environmental sustainability goals. Of the USD 95 trillion invested in global stock markets, only 1 to 2 trillion is aligned to Environment, Social and Governance principles. We predict that as digital transformation reaches more financial markets, it will become simpler to integrate environmental considerations into costing models, risk assessments, chain of custody, and due diligence requirements meaning markets and sustainability can become more aligned. If there were metrics and auditing frameworks that could measure the net impact of digitalisation consistently, in context, the financial community could invest in digital transformation with the largest environmental benefits.

3. Measure the sustainability performance of supply chains. Currently, it is difficult to track the lifecycle of products and services because of non-standardised, complex data in complicated, globalised supply chains. However, embedding digital technologies within supply chains and using lifecycle analysis combined with AI, would offer opportunities to accurately measure and compare the sustainability performance of different products. We should also push to adopt global, open standards to support standardisation and data interoperability, and reduce fragmentation and obstacles to trade and global supply chains. Global standards to underpin digital product passports and a circular economy will be essential.

4. Incentivise sustainable consumption practices. There are over 2 billion digital consumers in the world and a recent study indicated that 65% of consumers said they want to buy brands that advocate sustainability, yet only 26% actually do so. Digital technologies present an opportunity to close the gap between consumer intentions and their actual behaviour so they can more easily identify—and choose—sustainable products, services and lifestyles. This may be by engaging consumers through ecolabels and digital product passports, as well as targeted, value-based communication, digital nudging and gamification. Major investments and policy frameworks are needed in the digital landscape to incentivise and automate the consumer behaviours of citizens, governments and businesses.

5. Build sustainable procurement practices. If organisations buying digital technologies begin to incorporate sustainability criteria into their purchasing decisions, this would have a major influence on market demand dynamics (especially through government procurement that represents 15 to 20% of global GDP). Green Public Procurement criteria should be consolidated and shared across countries. UN agencies are collaborating on this work and are already committed to systematically integrating sustainability considerations in procurement policies at all levels.

Moving forward

UNEP is one of the co-champions of the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES) initiative which will begin to implement the UN Secretary General’s Digital Cooperation Roadmap. Developed by several sustainability-conscious organisations, CODES aims to bring together stakeholders from the public and private sectors as well as civil society who work on the environment and digital transformation nexus. Their mission is to push forward public policies, standards and collaborations that harness digital transformation to become a positive and exponential force for environmental sustainability and climate action. One of the main outcomes will be a shared Acceleration Plan on a Digital Planet for Sustainability and a series of political, technical and financial commitments. UNEP has also adopted digital transformation for environmental sustainability as a new programme area for 2022 to 2025 and will be highlighting issues to the UN Environment Assembly.

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