Digitalization Going Green

Digitalization accompanies and drives modern human development. It has led to a huge boom in the volume of available information and its streamlining. Additionally, it has led to increasing the speed of decision-making, and simplified means of communication amid decreasing business travel intensity, and the volume of resources required for traditional correspondence. Additionally, new digital technologies can mitigate many environmental risks. For example, artificial intelligence makes it possible to process big data, integrate results into environmental monitoring systems, and perform modeling, forecasting and early warning assessments of critical environmental conditions.

However, this does not mean that digitalization is environmentally neutral and poses no threat. With its tangible (devices and infrastructure) and virtual (data exchange, etc.) dimensions, it bears certain threats that are traditionally associated with excessive resource consumption with device manufacturing. Additionally, to produce and make devices work, CO2 emissions are released into the atmosphere, global flora and fauna are altered, and mounts of electronic waste is produced.

Digitalization as a system has a complex structure that consists of electronic devices, networks connecting, storing, and transmitting information, energy consumption, and environmental impacts. Estimates of such impacts vary considerably, from being critical and avalanche-like to others being more moderate. The most grievous negative effects of digitalization can, more or less, be assessed.

Digitalization’s Carbon Footprint

Digitalization, like almost any technological process, produces CO2 emissions at some point, which rightly draws criticism amid international efforts to decarbonize. Its contribution to global CO2 emissions is estimated at 1.4%. At the same time, the scope and speed of digitalization creates the false perception that resulting carbon dioxide emissions are increasing manifold, often faster than emissions from other industries. The international community and its aims for global development should not interpret the pace of digitalization as linear processes multiplied by CO2 emissions. As proof, in the 18 years between the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, the number of internet users in the world had increased twenty-fold (from 2% to 40% of the world’s population). During the same period, CO2 emissions increased 1.5 times (from 24.3 billion tons to 35.5 billion tons). In the following seven years, the global population reached 8 billion people, and the number of internet users increased 1.7 times, covering 67% of the world population (5.3 billion people). According the Global Carbon Budget’s forecast for 2022, global CO2 emissions will grow by 2.1 billion tons, reaching 37.5 billion.

By the end of 2022, global data traffic will reach 4.8 zettabytes per year (150,000 gigabytes second), over 80% of which will be video content. According to certain calculations, internet traffic growth will cause a sharp increase in the carbon footprint of IT companies. However, some tech giants (e.g., Google) announced goals of achieving of carbon neutrality back in 2018.

Thus, the estimated significance of carbon dioxide emissions associated with digitalization seems to be overhyped. Trends in the number of internet users, the digital environment load, and the volume of CO2 emissions seemingly look unidirectional in a dynamic and comparative analysis, but their medians do not coincide. Nevertheless, digitalization notably poses various substantial risks to the environment, which should not be ignored. Rather, they must be accurately understood to evade inadequate responses.

An objective trend is the growth of energy generation and consumption, caused by factors like digitalization exigencies and internet access development. Electricity consumption can conventionally be divided into two parts: consumption by device-making manufacturers, and consumption by the IT sector that ensures the operation of equipment, devices, and data transfers. Electricity consumption is not harmful to the environment, but if covering the hydrocarbon-based generation, its production is fraught with significant negative impacts and CO2 emissions.

Renewable energy sources and energy-saving technologies partially compensate for energy consumption growth in this sector and is associated with CO2 emissions.

Digitalization’s Resource Footprint

In the context of critical resource consumption for device production, digitalization is primarily associated with smartphones. The number of mobile users (smartphones and phones) alone has already reached 7.1 billion people, and the number of active devices has reached 14.9 billion units. According to the Roadmap for Digital Cooperation of the International Telecommunication Union, by 2030 the entire population over the age of 15, regardless of what the global population might be in the future, will require internet access.

With this in mind, communication via smartphones will be only second in terms of the overall internet transaction volume. The most explosive growth in online interaction will come from electronic devices in the machine-to-machine (M2M) sector. By 2023, the number of internet-connected devices is expected to reach 29.3 billion (3.6 connected devices per capita), up from the 18.4 billion (2.4 per capita) five years ago.

Since 2010, global sales of the most resource-intensive electronic devices (desktop computers, laptops, tablets, monitors, TV-sets) have been steadily declining – by the early 2020s only 440 million units had been sold. At the same time, smartphone sales keep growing with 1.5 billion units sold per year. Given the long lifespan of desktop computers and TV-sets (about 8 years), reducing resource consumption associated with digitalization can be up for discussion, unless the increase in smartphones sales with a lifespan of 1.5 years and a high content of certain elements has caused even greater natural resource consumption. Smartphones already claim about 8.9% of the global palladium production and 9.4% of global cobalt production, as well as 1% to 3% of the global production of gold, silver, tantalum, indium and other metals.

In addition to the high consumption of mineral resources, the production of electronic devices requires mass volumes of water. The most water-intensive stages of production are metal mining and semiconductor manufacturing. For example, the extraction of one ton of ore, depending on conditions, can use from 340 to 6,270 liters of water. Up to 60 thousand cubic meters of gases containing hydrofluoric acid, 1.4 tons of radioactive waste, and 200 thousand liters of acid-containing wastewater are emitted during the production of one ton of rare-earth metals.

Negative Effects of Infrastructure Digitalization

Infrastructure digitalization can conventionally be split into the following sectors: terrestrial, submarine, and space. These sectors consume lots of energy, its estimates varying widely, and cause pollution both during the operation of said equipment and after its completion.

Annual power consumption by the global IT industry is significant, amounting to 2 trillion kilowatt-hours.

The most energy-intensive elements in onshore infrastructure are data centers (data processing centers/DPCs) and communication networks. Up to 10% of total electricity consumed by the IT industry comes from the 8,370 largest data centers scattered around the world, running approximately 56 million servers in total (mining is excluded from the analysis, although it is also an element of digitalization). Data centers and data networks alone account for up to 1.5% of global electricity consumption. Data centers use electricity to power servers and internal networks, as well as to cool equipment. Often, the energy required for cooling exceeds the energy used in storage, processing, and data transmission.

An increasing amount of electricity consumed by data centers is generated from renewable sources, which can be tracked using data center certification. IT giants such as Google, Microsoft, Meta, Amazon, and others certify data centers.

Building and maintaining DPCs is resource intensive as well. Data center infrastructure is comprised of both primary and secondary levels. The former consists of servers and networks, while the latter includes buildings, control and cooling systems. The main system must be renewed every 8-10 years, whereas auxiliary infrastructure lasts longer. The most resource-intensive in terms of metals, plastic, glass, etc. is the main part of the data center that requires more frequent upgrades.

DPCs around the world consume significant amounts of water – about 980 million cubic meters of water per year, or up to 2.7 million cubic meters per day. A medium-sized data center comprised of several thousand servers consumes roughly 16,000 cubic meters per day for cooling. In regard to local water scarcity levels, they can compete for resources with traditional consumers, as is the case in Oregon (USA), where Apple and Meta data centers compete for water with farmers.

Another extremely resource-intensive infrastructure element of digitalization includes data transmission networks. The emerging generation of 5G networks will increase internet speed, but due to technical characteristics, it will require more equipment for signal transmission and to maintain the signal than the previous network generation. New networks will require a new generation of devices with increased battery capacity that can effectively handle the speed characteristics of 5G networks. By 2023, more than 1.4 billion mobile devices are expected to be compatible with 5G networks and generate more than 12% of global mobile device traffic.

Underwater infrastructure that backs digitalization, such as communication cables is also noteworthy. With a total length of 1.2 million kilometers, they are installed across the seabed, connecting continental internet networks. In this case, negative environmental effects are associated with the high electricity consumption they require to run, and emissions of halogenated volatile organic compounds during cable production; these compounds are hazardous for the plant’s ozone layer. Pursuant to the current pattern of cable exploitation, the negative impact on the ozone layer will be lowered considerably by proper cable recycling after they are deemed no longer functional, prolongating their use from 13 to 25 years.

Space infrastructure is formed by a constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth, totaling to 6,800 in 2022, of which 5,000 are used for communication purposes. The largest consolidated satellite constellation providing high-speed internet communication took just four years to form. It belongs to SpaceX and consists of 3,271 satellites. In 2019, the company received permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to launch 12,000 communication satellites and applied to launch another 30,000. In December 2022, the Commission issued permission to launch 7,500 satellites, postponing a decision on the remainder. Each of the first wave SpaceX satellites had a lifespan of up to 5 years and weighed about 260 kilograms. Second wave satellites will be more technologically advanced and their mass will be up to 1,150 kilograms each. Maintaining digitalization infrastructure with such characteristics means that a single company will form more than 10 thousand tons of space debris by 2030, in addition to the more than 10,000 tons of space objects already in orbit.

Given their low numbers, the negative effects associated with the energy required to produce communication satellites, as well as the resources for building them, are relatively small. Getting satellites into orbit, however, is concerning, given the toxic fuels used for rocket engines. However, the total limited number of launches (including unsuccessful ones) since 1957, which has roughly reached 9,000, suggests that this impact is not substantial. More concerning is the impossibility to recycle communication satellites after they have been disabled. Satellites are usually taken out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere to prevent large amounts of space debris from forming in orbit. In this process aluminum oxide is released into the atmosphere, harming the ozone layer, and increasing the greenhouse effect.

Digitalization’s Trail of Trash

The number of used mobile devices is expected to reach 16 billion units in 2022, including 4.5 billion smartphones and 1.5 billion tablets, each of them likely to become electronic waste by 2025 and definitely by 2030. Although these devices contain a huge volume of expensive components, only up to 20% of these will be properly recycled. The remaining 80% will either be inefficiently and unprofessionally disassembled somewhere in Asia or Africa, or simply end up in landfills. Large volumes of this electronic waste threats the environment with toxic elements: mercury, cadmium, lead, and brominated flame retardants that contaminate the soil, water, and air.

Biodiversity Loss and Disrupted Habitats

There are limited studies on the relationship between digitalization and biodiversity loss. The methodologies used to assess the correlation vary widely. However, researchers agree that biodiversity and habitats are affected directly by digitalization, mainly through the extraction of fossil resources use to produce electronic devices and the impact of electronic waste. They are also indirectly affected through CO2 emissions being released into the atmosphere. However, no direct link has been established between digitalization and the loss in biodiversity.

The impact of internet cables connecting communication between continents through underwater habitats is a matter of debate. A number of studies point to unavoidable electromagnetic, sound, and temperature effects on the environment, which can disorient mammals and fish – for example, when they migrate.


Today. digitalization poses significant environmental risks, which are predominantly related to digitalization’s material rather than virtual dimension: the excessive volume of electronic devices in circulation, short lifespans, low volumes of recycled waste, and the high energy intensity of its infrastructure. That being said, in the data exchange sector a moderate increase in CO2 emissions is visible and, in some cases, there is a trend towards carbon neutrality.

To ensure proper maintenance of digitalization’s “engine”, it requires greener “oil” to make it run smoothly and safely. By adopting greener policies, negative environmental impacts of digitalization can be better identified, and digitalization can minimalize its environmental footprint by taking measures to level out its destructive effects. Thus, initiatives aiming to go green shapes digitalization, reduces the risks of negative environmental impacts, and makes it sustainable in the future.

From our partner RIAC

Grigory Yarygin
Grigory Yarygin
Ph.D. in History, Associate Professor with the American Studies Department at the School of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University