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Technology may solve climate change problems, but it's also causing them

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It’s that time of year again when everyone eagerly awaits the annual fall release of the latest and greatest devices and digital applications from technology companies. Their executives are expected to pull out all the stops in an hour-long showmanship-esque performance complete with glittering lights and epic marketing materials. But those who are talking about the other side of the coin: the dark underside of the tech industry that is slowly but surely encroaching upon our planet. very few.

Yes you read that right. The very industries that brought innovations that transform our lives, such as smartphones and social media, are also responsible for some of the most pressing environmental challenges we face today. Major technology developments related to sustainability, for example, were barely talked about. A recent landmark EU ruling amended the Radio Devices Directive to require all mobile electronic devices to use a single, unified USB-C charging port by 2024.

The reform is expected to save about 11,000 tonnes of e-waste each year in the EU alone. While this move is a positive step towards environmental responsibility, the unfortunate reality is that the entire tech sector is facing a sustainability crisis.

For most people, digital technology is the solution, not the driver of unsustainable practices. Digital applications are driving a revolution that promises and delivers transformative social benefits. From smart cities and precision agriculture, to the potential of immersive metaverse meetings and ultra-efficient AI-enabled supply his chain, the idea that digital technology can serve as a panacea for all unsustainable practices is often touted. It has been.

blinded by bright promises

The danger is that the potential of digital technology could blind us to our little-recognized contribution to climate problems.Emissions from the ICT sector already rival those of the aviation industry. To do. Moreover, several studies (a,b,c) conducted so far suggest that the ICT sector’s emissions will at least double to 2-3 GTCO.2e And if the rise in global GHG emissions is limited to 1.5°C by 2030, it would contribute about 10% of the global GHG load. This is about the same as in the automotive industry. And these are conservative estimates.

This poses a dilemma not just for ICT companies, but for all technology leaders and investors at large. By critically and collectively questioning both supply and demand before carbon footprints are set, technology leaders will , it is time to proactively address the sustainability challenges of the sector. Otherwise, the sustainability benefits may be undermined as a secondary consequence. Then, like so many industries before it, a fragmented future of forced disruption can pose challenges.

An unsustainable chain of digital futures

In 2016, environmental scientist Karen Seto of Yale University and her colleagues identified three types of carbon lock inThese lock-ins will force emissions to become entrenched in the sector and down a path that exacerbates climate change. All three types of lock-in exist in today’s ICT sector, and the longer it is ignored, the harder it is to undo the consequences.

First, there is behavioral lock-in related to customer demand for ICT goods and services. Consumers want to be permanently connected, constantly producing and consuming data, and regularly swapping digital devices. Smartphone replacement cycles are shorter than ever, at less than two years. Businesses also have confined behaviors such as storing all the data they generate regardless of its usefulness. Companies also take advantage of the complexity to track Scope 3 emissions resulting from their technology use for opportunistic reasons, rather than even trying to disclose them.

The industry as a whole also struggles, albeit subliminally, with the belief that efficiency gains in other sectors can avoid impacts on their own sustainability. This is a dangerous idea, as economist William Jevons pointed out in his 1860s.

According to Jevon’s Paradox, actions that promise gains from higher efficiency are often offset, sometimes completely, by rebound effects. Jevons’ paradox is full of digital technology. For example, smart home systems that promise 10-25% energy savings are rare.

Second, digital technologies are increasingly susceptible to institutional lock-in.In this case, the sector’s governance, institutions and decision-making affect its production and consumption, thereby shaping energy supply and demand.

Consider this: Almost 80% of AI research focuses on AI accuracy, and only 20% on AI efficiency. This bias reflects the need to correct technology’s own deviations from sustainability and other social good goals before it can be adopted for greater benefit.

We found that investments in the new digital frontier were skewed towards areas where the UN’s contribution to the SDGs has been limited. For example, about half of the $31 billion invested in the metaverse over the past five years has been spent on entertainment use cases with little sustainability benefit.

Technology laws are largely reactionary and rarely address the need for energetic drinking. In fact, some policies are anchored across systems of diametrically opposed climate outcomes. For example, a lack of trust in international data sharing has led to data protection policies that require local data storage served by grids with no renewable backbone or serviced through temperate data centers. I got

It is intriguing to sweep dirty power out as a “power sector” problem, which can be mitigated by carbon offsets. Technology companies have already purchased more than half of all renewable offsets in the US today. But each increase in renewable power removed from the grid is a net loss, distracting from the true goal of carbon avoidance.

Third, the infrastructure lock-in that indirectly and directly emits CO2 and shapes the energy supply is also evident in the ICT sector. The semiconductor hardware infrastructure is already anchored in making devices out of silicon and rare earths. Moving to more energy-efficient alternatives such as gallium nitride (GaN) and biochips will require major system changes, with the abandonment of decades of investments in silicon-related infrastructure. .

Keeping the digital beast at bay

Undoubtedly, it can be argued that technologists have made rapid progress in the ICT sector while managing their sustainability impact. Research shows that his ICT share of global emissions has remained flat over the past decade due to groundbreaking innovations. However, past performance should not be expected to be indicative of future results.

We are approaching the limits of miniaturization for silicon hardware. This suggests that without incremental innovation in manufacturing technology, Moore’s Law predictions of hardware efficiency may not be realized. Easy efficiencies in networks and clouds are coming to an end as we complete the transition from copper to fiber and from small, inefficient data centers to hyperscale data centers.

These terms and others should serve as a clear call to technology leaders. Without a system-level perspective, the race to optimize results at the unit level cannot continue. To move forward, leaders should ponder these key questions for gaining broad buy-in from digital supply and demand:

Does demand justify the cost of fulfillment? Do you need technology? Is sustainability a primary goal of application development? Are all sustainability impacts considered, including negative impacts of adoption?

How is supply efficiency ensured? How do you understand operational efficiency across hardware manufacturing, cloud, network, and devices enabling technology applications? How can we best use technologies such as AI-enabled sustainability solutions for the tech sector?

Lock-in is a systemic problem. Proactively identifying and avoiding sector lock-in requires joint action involving all stakeholders. If technology leaders get the questions right and act now, they can ensure that digital technologies deliver on the promise of many societal benefits in the future.

Mark Minevich is Investor, United Nations Advisor, AI Advocate, Disruptive Innovator, Co-Chair of the AI ​​for the Planet Alliance, Chair of the Executive Committee of the AI ​​for Good Foundation, Senior Advisor to BCG, President and General Partner of Going Global. is. Ventures.

François Candelon is a Managing Director and Senior Partner of The Boston Consulting Group and Global Director of the BCG Henderson Institute.

David Young is a Managing Director and Senior Partner of the Boston Consulting Group and a Fellow of the BCG Henderson Institute.

Maxime Courtaux is a project leader for the Boston Consulting Group and an ambassador for the BCG Henderson Institute.

Vinit Patel is a project leader for the Boston Consulting Group and an ambassador for the BCG Henderson Institute.

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