How information technology impacts the climate

We use more and more streams, apps and data. This also increases emissions and impacts the climate. How measurable is that? And what solutions are there to counteract this? GDI senior researcher Jan Bieser looks into this in a scientific article.
3 February, 2023 by
How information technology impacts the climate
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

The climate impact of information and communication technology (ICT) has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years, often focusing on calculating the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of digital technology and its potential to reduce emissions. However, as the studies differ methodologically, it was time for a systematic comparison within the framework of this meta-study.

The ICT sector accounts for between 1.5% and 4% of global GHG emissions. Most of these emissions are caused by the production of ICT end-user devices, which is why it is important to manufacture fewer devices and make their production more climate-friendly. For data centres and telecommunication networks such as our fibre and 5G networks, electricity consumption in the use phase dominates the GHG footprint. Here, operating only as much infrastructure as necessary and using electricity from renewable energy sources is important.

Less meaningful are the results of studies on the potential of digital applications to reduce GHG emissions in other sectors, such as buildings and transport through innovative heating or transport solutions. The studies often calculate large theoretical climate protection potentials. However, they make no statement about how many emissions are avoided. There are two reasons for this: On the one hand, they make very optimistic assumptions that only apply under ideal conditions. On the other hand, they simply ignore emission-increasing effects, such as rebound effects.

Consequently, we still cannot say with certainty whether digitalisation has been a blessing or a curse for climate protection. The climate protection potential is great, but whether we exploit it is another question. In future, the development and use of digital applications should be accompanied by empirical studies. Then we can measure whether there is a reduction or increase in emissions and evaluate which solutions and accompanying measures help to put digitalisation at the service of climate protection.

You can read more about this in the article "A review of assessments of the greenhouse gas footprint and abatement potential of information and communication technology".

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