The claim was historically high from the start: The "Green Deal" is Europe's "man on the moon" moment, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in December 2019, alluding to Neil Armstrong's moon landing. Since then, her political prestige project has gained considerable momentum. The EU is to take on a pioneering role in the fight against global warming and Europe is to become the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050. In our new episode of the EU digital policy podcast from Brussels, MEP Alexandra Geese talks about the opportunities of digitization for more sustainability on the internet.
Digitization for more climate protection
This green transformation of the economy is in full swing: from the end of the combustion engine on the roads to the accelerated expansion of renewable energies and a rising price for C02 through reformed emissions trading. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine has pushed the issue of energy security to the top of the political agenda. Even if the departure from fossil fuels in the crisis takes longer than planned, the expansion of energy from wind, sun and the like remain a central component in the effort to reduce Europe's energy dependence.
Digitization plays an important role in the EU's Green Deal. Digital infrastructure and services - from smart houses to autonomous driving – can help save many times more CO2 than the information and communications industry itself produces in greenhouse gases.
Bonn MEP Alexandra Geese from Bündnis 90/Die Grünen agrees: "With digital and data-driven innovations, we can reduce energy and resource consumption in a targeted manner. We must seize this opportunity." She introduced a key motion for closer integration of sustainability and digitalization at the recent federal delegates' conference in Bonn. The EU is talking about a green and digital "twin transition" – but is not yet treating the two as two sides of the same coin in its everyday legislative work, Geese said in our EU digital policy podcast. "Only if we think of the digital and green transformation together, we can meet the challenge of limiting global warming."
Climate-neutral data centers by 2030
She sees pent-up demand for transparency and comparability. "We know far too little about energy and resource consumption - from social media, for example." Browsers, search engines, digital marketplaces, social networks would have to be comparable in terms of electricity and resource consumption in the future. Only in this way could consumers consciously choose sustainable products and companies distinguish themselves through sustainability in a market that is not regulated by price. "European standards must be developed for this purpose."
"Resource and energy efficiency by design" would also have to become the starting point in the design and operation of digital infrastructures. According to the coalition agreement, new data centers in Germany should be operated in a climate-neutral manner from 2027 at the latest, and all data centers in Europe should be climate-neutral by 2030. At the EU level, the Parliament has just voted for a cadastre for data centers from 2024.
The ubiquitous availability of fiber and 5G by 2030 in Europe envisaged in the "Digital Decade" will help the green transition, as both network generations are significantly more energy efficient than previous ones. Nevertheless, networks and data centers do not account for the lion's share of C02 emissions in the ICT sector, but devices.
Moving away from a throwaway mentality
A key component of the EU plans is therefore the circular economy. Europe produces far too much electronic waste. Cell phones and laptops are replaced with new devices far too quickly instead of being repaired. And too often, old devices lie dormant in drawers instead of being used for the raw materials they contain.
In the future, cell phone batteries must be replaceable, and from 2024 there will be standardized charging cables for devices such as smartphones, laptops, digital cameras and e-readers. A digital product passport is to make the life cycle assessment of devices more transparent. There is also to be a right to repair and clear recycling regulations. "The geopolitical situation makes it clear to us once again that it makes little sense to throw away and leave raw materials unused that we have to import from other regions of the world where the human rights situation is poor or new unhealthy dependencies are emerging," warns Alexandra Geese. A focus on devices, however, is not enough - there must also be mandatory software and security updates, as this also increases the durability of many devices. The MEP believes that the young generation has long since said goodbye to the throwaway idea. "I have the impression that something is changing. Young people are buying more used clothing. They would also buy used appliances if there were more of them."
Limiting data growth helps the environment
Speaking of a mindset change. The Green Party politician is concerned about the strong growth in data traffic, which is increasing by around 30 percent a year. The ICT sector is responsible for two to four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – but the trend is upward. So far, enormous efficiency gains in the digital infrastructure have succeeded in offsetting the negative environmental effects. But these efficiencies will eventually be exhausted. What's more: "Efficiency gains in digitization are too often eaten up by additional consumption, e.g., when we use more services than before due to improved data transmission," says Geese. Incentives for limiting data traffic are therefore key.
One example: video streaming is responsible for an estimated 60 percent of data traffic on the Internet, Geese says. The voluntary limitation of streaming bit rates by major streaming services during the COVID-19 crisis worked smoothly, she says. "Why aren't lower resolutions than technically possible mandatory as a default? Similarly, autoplay of video, for example, should not be automatically enabled when a page is opened." In other words, consumers can decide whether they want to watch a video or stream a movie in the highest quality.
Geese's conclusion: "We need a green digitization strategy that allows us to fully exploit the sustainability potential while limiting the environmentally harmful effects of digitization." The Green politician from Bonn wants to contribute as much as possible to this in the European Parliament.