BPI France: Webinar on the future of digital sustainability

Four experts address the key challenges of sustainability for the booming and horizontal sector

In February 2021, the BPI webinar series turned its focus to the question of sustainability in the digital sector. BPI (Banque Publique d’Investissement) is a public entity that can be considered the “climate bank” that provides general support and financial backing to the most promising sustainability start-ups in France.

“Green IT” webinar was an exploration of the challenges presented by the ecological transition of the digital sector, under the moderation of Thierry Keller, editor-in-chief of Usbek and Rica magazine, the three panelists included Sylvie Menezo, Founder & President of Scintil Phototonics, Véronique Torner, board member of Syntec Numérique and head of Responsible Digital and of Planet Tech’Care, and Valentin Bouteillier, Director of Development and Impact of eco-advisory website Zei.

The discussion revolved around three central themes: can digital become more sustainable, thanks to technologies that aim to reduce the carbon footprint of digital? What are the current limitations concerning impact measurement, and can we achieve a consensus? In the debate on digital sustainability, is there a conflict between the idea of innovative problem-solving technologies, vs. individual and corporate awareness, resulting in behavioral changes of digital sobriety?

Laying out the fundamentals of the issue, the panelists underlined the essential and broad role of digital in supporting transformation of other sectors – health, education, industry etc. Indeed, not only does digital hold in our current day society an essential role in providing access to information and content, it has great capacity to reduce the carbon footprint of nearly everything, thanks to automization and distance-reducing technology. The concept of the “Webinar” constitutes the perfect example: not only are panelists and hundreds of webinar participants empowered to attend without using carbon-heavy venue and transportation, the Webinar also provides access to interaction and knowledge sharing in the current context of a curfewed France going through a sanitary crisis. These could be considered positive offsets to what is considered the downside of digital: the carbon cost of a live-streaming session.

The carbon footprint of the digital sector involves the issues of: energy consumed to produce devices (telephones, laptops, screens etc.), the unsustainability of rare metal mining, the environmental toxicity of e-waste, and the energy used in networks and data-centers.

For those new to the question of mass stockage of data, there is a common misconception of data floating in an immaterial “cloud”.

In fact, it is stocked in very material data-centers, with the question of the energy-consuming nature of data-centers (and their energy-consuming cooling systems) being a central issue to the policy of the French government. In October 2020, Cedric O, State Secretary of Digital, announced that: “data centers in France must to put in place ambitious measures to control their environmental footprint, in terms of energy efficiency and waste heat recovery, in accordance with the proposal of the Citizen's Climate Convention.”

Network infrastructure is also subject to potential improvement. Panelist Professor Sylvie Menezo (Founder of Scintil Phototonics) reminds us of the essential role of technologies, citing Professor Emmanuel Desurvire who in 1987 invented the optical amplifier which uses erbium-infused fibers. His technique supplanted electronic repeaters and multiplied by 10,000 the speed of the Internet. Such a break-through within the challenges of current-day infrastructures will no doubt have a fundamental role in improving the efficiency of network structures. Professor Menezo highlights that central figures of the digital industry are working on reducing by up to 100 times the consumption of networks by eliminating electrical transmission and maximizing the use fiber optic for the transmission of data.

Panelist Valentin Bouteillier brought the discussion to the fabrication of devices, which constitutes a significant part of the problem. According to his figures, in 2018, there were around 10 billion devices; it is estimated that by 2025 this will go to 60 billion.* (According to New Scientist, the manufacture and use of smartphones, computers and TVs produces global greenhouse gas emissions that will double from 2020 to reach 8 per cent by 2025). This figure would suggest that our current increase in awareness for the need of a circular economy is not having a real impact on the number of devices produced, and the resulting effect on the planet.

Concerning impact measurement, Veronique Torner highlighted the current lack of consensus:

"We do not currently have the tools at our disposal to carry out a measurement framework of the environmental impact of the digital sector. While it might be possible to measure the carbon footprint of infrastructures supporting the digital sector, the exact impact of various digital usages is not yet subject to a consolidated measurement framework."

Indeed, some panelists during the Webinar provided certain figures, yet at the current time there is no authoritative impact measurement framework, with actual sources for information remaining as yet vague.

As moderator Thierry Keller underlined, there currently exists a boom of start-ups in France offering innovative solutions to reducing the carbon footprint. In light of the current trend resulting from both public policy and corporate responsibility, research grants are provided subject to proof of positive impact. Furthermore, sustainability is an important criteria for investors, who increasingly consider that supporting sustainability is a smart business decision, both in Europe and the USA. Despite which, the mini-poll taken during the Webinar tended strongly towards the view that “digital sobriety” (reduced use of digital) should take precedence over scientific solutions to reducing the impact of technologies.

In conclusion, unresolved issues, including the balance between sobriety vs. innovation, and the challenge of achieving consensus on impact measurement (or lack of it) will clearly emerge as central issues within knowledge hubs to address the challenge of sustainability within the digital sector. Is there an essential conflict between digital sobriety and innovative solutions? To what extent is sobriety feasible, in the face of the booming use of digital tools? To what extent can impact measurement take into account the global picture, including positive and negative collateral effects? And is the current lack of impact measurement consensus an obstacle to sustainable solutions?

Source: BPI France, Data Center Magazine, New Scientist

*(the panelist promised to provide his source in the follow-up documentation to the conference).