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Two worlds apart? Harmonizing digitalization and the environment


There are substantial, yet surmountable, barriers to unlocking digitalization’s environmental potential.

Last year was billed by some as a ‘super year’ for the environment, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) in November taking centre stage. But, with some of these multilateral processes spilling over into this year, the widely accepted need for a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, and growing commentary linking the invasion of Ukraine to broader energy security issues,  environmental action looks set to be equally prominent in 2022.

One international event that flew below the radar of many environmental summit watchers in 2021 was the 16th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held both online and in Katowice, Poland. The IGF is a global multi-stakeholder platform mandated by the UN General Assembly to facilitate discussion of public policy issues around internet governance. At face value, this may seem to have little to do with the environment, but with the perpetual treadmill of device upgrades, energy consumption, resource extraction and use and e-waste associated with information and communication technologies (ICT), there is increasing recognition that the environmental footprint of digital transformation can no longer be an afterthought.

Many have been replacing international flights with video streaming, conferencing, online gaming and social networking over the past two years and, predictably, global internet traffic surged by 40 per cent in 2020. While the impacts may seem trivial in comparison to the environmental externalities of heavy industry and aviation, for example, the pre-pandemic carbon footprint of ICT was already thought to be on a par with the aviation industry and e-waste is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream with only 17 per cent being collected and recycled.

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