Protection of natural habitat

Our survival depends on our natural habitat – our air, water, and earth. Harmony between humans and nature is critical for healthy lives and long-term prosperity. However, we have put a lot of strain on our environment with dire consequences and a significant risk to the future of humanity.

This has prompted political dialogue and international action, with increasing efforts on issues like biodiversity, climate change, and overall environmental protection.

The impact of technological progress on nature is an important facet of these policy processes. Discussions increasingly focus on digitalisation, which is the most dynamic aspect of technological progress. At this point, digital growth has had conflicting effects on the environment and natural ecosystems.

Positively, digital technologies can support the monitoring and mitigation of environmental efforts by analysing large quantities of data, modelling future developments, and identifying environmental issues and possible solutions. Big data and AI systems can monitor climate change, ocean pollution, and overfishing, among many others.

Negatively, digitalisation has also become one of the more significant contributors to pollution, climate change, and overall environmental degradation. Digital platforms, for example, are major consumers of energy. Data servers consume 2% of global electricity consumption and are forecasted to increase their share to 8% by 2030. In 2019, bitcoin mining consumed 64.15 TWh of electricity, which exceeded the energy demand of entire countries like Chile, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Bangladesh.

Beyond the energy required for the operation of our digital world, digitalisation has environmental costs throughout the lifecycle of all digital products. The rapid consumption of digital devices, such as mobile phones and computers, has a significant effect, particularly driven by fast device turnover. Their production is a big undertaking that requires energy and large amounts of raw materials. This device turnover is also the primary force behind the generation of e-waste, which totals over 50 million tonnes worldwide per year. Only about 20% of this waste is recycled – perhaps this is best exemplified by a recent estimate that up to 7% of the world’s gold is trapped in our e-waste (Wainwright, 2021).

Going forward, we must ensure that we lean into the positive impacts of digitalisation rather than exacerbate the negative. For example, the use of renewable energy in the operation of digital infrastructure and products, as well as developing more sustainable products, minimising e-waste, and improving recycling efforts. Many trade-offs will have to be made from government, producer, and consumer perspectives.