Computing and telecommunications (smartphone, radio, television, Internet) rely on the transformation of data into numbers that can be processed by computer. This “digital” sector has become so important that it is at the origin of the third industrial revolution. Using more and more terminals, which exchange more and more content that is more and more voracious in computing, it generates more and more nuisance. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to end.
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Thus, online video viewing is exploding and their distribution now monopolizes 80% of the Internet’s bandwidth. Video conferencing has become the standard for professional interaction since the episodes of sanitary confinement and we are awaiting the massive arrival of artificial intelligence, billions of communicating objects or autonomous cars, all served by a fifth generation of telecommunications. (5G) presented as essential to provide and sell these services.
Our digital lives
The digitization of our lives was not a priori inevitable, but it imposed itself largely without our knowledge, without real consultations, making it impossible for us to go back as most of our essential professional and social needs are now based on their daily use. Let us also note that the runaway of our societies is only possible thanks to digital technology, which favors the acceleration of all economic processes.
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As a result, digital technology has a significant impact on the material-energy-environment triad. The energy consumed by the sector has increased by 70% since 2013 and now represents 3.3% of global final energy (in France, 8.3% of total electricity consumption). And this, despite the extraordinary improvement in the energy efficiency of machines: for example, a modern graphics card consumes between 200 and 300 watts, for a computing capacity comparable to that of the supercomputers of the early 2000s, which themselves consumed 1.5 million watts. But, a classic manifestation of the rebound effect, the number of units in service has exploded, increasing the sector’s total energy consumption.
Energy for digital
Taking into account the global electricity mix, the energy required for digital technology produces 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2, or 4% of global emissions (in France, 3.2% of total emissions, three quarters due to the manufacture of terminals, networks and data centers, and one quarter linked to its use). The most significant impact, both energy and material, is linked to the manufacture of the terminals themselves, requiring the extraction, often polluting, and the transformation of many metals whose availability is limited. The rapid replacement of terminals (3.5 billion smartphones worldwide!), Linked in particular to obsolescence and their very low recycling rate, further add to the environmental consequences.
The players in the sector are doing nothing to mitigate them, betting on energy efficiency gains and recycling to curb the growing curve of nuisances. Without success for the moment. The private sector makes endless promises, without ensuring their compatibility with planetary limits, nor their adequacy to the real needs of the populations. The public sector is delighted to put them forward to promote the very illusory “green growth”.
Between reasonable use and massive denumerization, it is high time to think about the real usefulness of these techniques in order to fight against the runaway that they cause. To get out of this infernal spiral, we would have to adopt digital sobriety as a principle of action, a state of mind that it would also be good to extend to all of our actions in the world.