Sustainability should be ‘underlying principle‘ of digital policy: German minister

Digital innovations should be used as a tool for environmental protection and climate action, says Svenja Schulze.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) [EPA-EFE/Michele Tantussi]

This article is part of our special report Making Europe fit for the digital age.

Digital innovations should be used as a tool for environmental protection and climate action, but we must act now, Germany’s minister for the environment, Svenja Schulze, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Svenja Schulze currently serves as Germany’s Minister for the Environment. She conducted this interview with EURACTIV’s Samuel Stolton.

You’ve previously said you believe Europe’s digital transition could help reach the bloc’s climate goals for 2030 as part of the Green Deal. In what ways would you expect digital tools to be employed to help meet these targets?

Digital solutions are the key to bringing about the social and environmental transformation of our society. Digital management enables us to tap previously unimagined potential for efficiency, reduce resource consumption and achieve the climate goal of a CO2-free economy. Digital technology forms the basis for the energy transition and the mobility of tomorrow; just think of how traffic in cities can be reduced through smart management and linking sharing services with a strong public transport system.

By collecting and analysing vast amounts of data, we are also harnessing the potential of AI for environmental protection and climate action.

But we must act now. In the next few years, essential investment decisions will be made to achieve our climate goals. This period of profound change will be key, making it even more important not to set the wrong incentives in the recovery phase during and after the coronavirus pandemic. However, digitalisation does not necessarily lead to more sustainability, its ecological footprint is continuously growing and it can also increase existing problems. That is why we have to shape the digital transformation through policy.

Early this year, the EU executive is due to present a so-called ‘Digital Compass,’ setting out the bloc’s future ambitions in the digital arena for 2030. What should these objectives focus on, in your opinion? And how much should our green ambitions feature here?

First of all, we cannot separate the digital transformation from sustainability issues, this is important. The two issues are closely intertwined, which is why the Green Deal calls it the “twin transition”. Sustainability must become an underlying principle of digital policy, both at European and national level. 

With my Digital Policy Agenda for the Environment, which I presented last year, I formulated the clear political mandate to make digital innovations a tool for environmental protection and climate action and to firmly embed environmental and climate aspects in the regulation of digital technologies. Digitalisation may not be an end in itself; it must be put at the service of people and nature.

Digital sovereignty is also repeatedly mentioned in the context of the Digital Compass. For me, part of this sovereignty is that we define and blaze our own, uniquely European digitalisation trail, which is based on our values. It revolves around data protection and reconciling different interests, around inclusion and sustainability.

The European Green Deal and the General Data Protection Regulation are good first steps. Now it is also important to design policies such as the Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act and the Data Governance Act in such a way that the future digital economy bears a clear European signature.

Technology has often been criticised for its impact on the environment. For example, Germany has made much of the EU’s plans to significantly build up its cloud services infrastructure, however, data centres are regarded as being particularly emission-intensive. In what ways can the damaging environmental effects of technology be mitigated?

Since you asked specifically about data centres: of course, European data should stay in European hands as much as possible. If we think we need these cloud infrastructures, then it is up to us to provide them. This will allow us to maintain our digital sovereignty and make it easier to ensure that the cloud infrastructure is operated sustainably.

Making digital technologies more climate-friendly is a multifaceted undertaking. For devices like smartphones, for example, the focus is mainly on raw material extraction, production and disposal, while the emphasis for digital infrastructures is more on energy consumption from ongoing operations.

In the case of data centres, inadequate capacity utilisation and cooling are areas that currently generate more emissions than necessary. At the moment, the market structure for data centres is still not at all transparent. In the long term, we need to enable consumers of computing power to distinguish between providers in terms of how green they are.

Last year, during the German Council Presidency, the EU Commission was mandated for the first time to initiate measures for sustainable digitalisation. These included eco-design criteria, incentives for durable devices and climate-neutral data centres.

And last but not least, we can’t forget the data transmission networks. For instance, data transmission networks often consume more energy than data centres for one hour of online streaming. The general rule of thumb here is that cable-based data transmission is more efficient than mobile transmission. 

Another area at the intersection of technology and the environment that has often been spoken about in Brussels has been how our devices are used and recycled. In a bid to reduce e-waste, the European Parliament has long supported the notion of introducing a ‘right to repair.’ What is your opinion of such plans?

We strongly support the Commission’s plans for a Sustainable Products Initiative and consider it a good sign that Parliament is on the same page. The Sustainable Products Initiative aims to strengthen what is called the right to repair, i.e. to make it easier for consumers to repair a product instead of buying a new one. One aspect here is that products are designed to ensure that components can be easily taken apart, that manufacturers provide consumers with spare parts for a long period of time and at reasonable prices and that there is clear repair information.

Another aspect is improving consumer rights, for example in terms of how long a claim can be made for a defect. A period of only 2 years to claim a defect under a guarantee is too short, especially in the case of products like household appliances. Manufacturers and retailers must be encouraged by clear rules to sell durable products – this is good for both the environment and for consumers.

Talking of unnecessary electrical waste, research has shown that old mobile phone chargers generate more than 51 000 tonnes of electronic waste per year. According to recent reports, the Commission aims to present a legislative proposal for establishing a ‘common charger’ for devices in mid-July. However, the plans have long been derided by certain smartphone manufacturers, including Apple. What is your stance on this initiative?

The fact that chargers are not standardised has certainly been a problem for resource conservation for a long time. Unfortunately, manufacturers have not yet found a solution voluntarily. I am therefore pleased that the Commission is now addressing this issue in the context of the Ecodesign Directive and looking at regulatory options. We are pushing for a) chargers to become standardised and thus interoperable and b) for retailers to sell smartphones and chargers separately, i.e. not together in one box.

After all, if chargers are interoperable, households will no longer need a separate charger for each device. Incidentally, we do not just want interoperability within the product group of smartphones and tablets, but also for other well-suited products, such as digital cameras, portable speakers, e-readers, laptops etc.

EU countries are currently outlining their spending plans as part of the bloc’s Recovery and Resilience fund (RRF), 20% of which will be allocated to digital projects. As part of this outlay, the Commission is said to favour plans that will foster the green and digital transitions in parallel with one another.  In your opinion, how likely is it that member states will see the value in this, and will there be a harmonised approach when it comes to their spending plans in this area?

During the German Council presidency in the second half of 2020, I received a lot of backing for putting the issue of digitalisation on the agenda together with environmental protection and climate action. The EU member states have clearly highlighted the importance of this “twin transition” with the Council conclusions on “Digitalisation for the benefit of the environment”.

An investment programme that links both aspects is therefore the logical next step. The EU and its member states need to provide adequate funding for key technologies such as AI, blockchain, the Internet of Things and high-performance computing now during these difficult times of tackling the pandemic. This is the only way we can meet our European environmental and climate goals, enable inclusive, socially just and sustainable economic growth and ensure an increase in competitiveness and prosperity. With the Council conclusions, the Commission is now called upon to propose specific measures for sustainable digitalisation. This is an enormous opportunity that makes me optimistic that we in the EU and in the individual member states will ambitiously pursue this issue.

The EU’s Justice Commissioner, Didier Reynders, has recently accused companies of ‘greenwashing,’ referring to the practice whereby companies claim to be doing more for the environment than they actually are. How serious an issue is this and what is the best way that such claims can be held to account? 

Sustainable corporate governance is growing in importance, the business community as a whole has recognised this trend and the public also has a greater awareness of sustainable business. As a result, many companies already publish sustainability reports today. However, they vary considerably in scope and quality. This is where the EU Commission comes in because people have a right to reliable information.

Justice Commissioner Reynders’ statement shows that the current legal framework for sustainable corporate governance and transparent sustainability reporting is not yet sufficient. In many product categories, such as organic or fair trade, there are established labels that make our everyday consumer choices much easier. I think that we need an overall set of rules for sustainable corporate governance and complementary standards and labels for the environmental performance of products and companies. The label “climate- or CO2-neutral” often stands for very different things.

The term greenwashing no longer applies if two conditions are met: emissions offsetting must be embedded in a mitigation strategy. When a carbon credit is issued, there must be exactly one additional mitigation measure that is clearly attributed to this credit. In the long term, all companies will have to produce without emitting any CO2, and it is only fair that true pioneers should also have a competitive advantage or at least not be placed at a disadvantage.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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