Digital revolution ‘ecological catastrophe’ without change, MEP warns

The EU has put in place plans to tackle both digital deficiencies and environmental issues over the next decade and beyond. [Shutterstock / PeachShutterStock]

The digital revolution risks serious environmental harm due to the impact of the materials it requires and EU legislation must ensure it is sustainable, according to MEP David Cormand at an event on Green ICT on Tuesday (14 June).

The online event brought together digital and environmental stakeholders to discuss how the digital sector can accelerate the green transition, but concerns were rife over the environmental fallout of digitalisation.

“For the moment, this revolution is catastrophic, an ecological catastrophe because all the objects connected need a lot, a lot, a lot of things to it, and for the moment, we haven’t got standards to have a circular economy with that,” Cormand said.

The rapporteur on a sustainable single market for the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCP) added that while ecological transition is a vital necessity, the digital transition is a tool.

It is time, Cormand added, “to decide which digital revolution we want. If we make a digital revolution in the situation now, it will not be a solution for the planet. It will be the contrary.” 

Tackling digital deficiencies

The EU has put in place plans to tackle digital deficiencies and environmental issues over the next decade and beyond. Still, those speaking alongside Cormand stressed the importance of examining the potentially harmful impacts of one shift on the other.

“The digital transition can have a conflict with the green transition”, Ilias Iakovidis, the European Commission’s Adviser for Digital Aspects of Green Transformation, said, adding that “every detail of digitalisation must be designed with sustainability in place.”  

“It’s not obvious that digitalising energy systems or agriculture will give you a sustainability benefit”, Iakovidis said. “There is a very specific band and conditions under which you have a triple ring: economic, social, environmental.”

Ensuring that these framework conditions are developed, made measurable and are guiding both policymakers and financial institutions will be essential to ensuring that sustainability benefits are achieved, he said.

Iakovidis added that this is the focus of the European Green Digital Coalition, a group of ICT companies that signed a pledge last year to support the EU’s twin transition goals. 

Beyond large companies, however, said Véronique Willems, secretary-general of SMEunited, the involvement of SMEs is crucial to ensuring both the green and digital transitions.

When it comes to the financial aspects of these shifts, she said, clarifying the details of 2030 targets on both sides would be essential, particularly regarding the amounts that should be being invested in them both at this point and moving forward.

Ensuring that reporting burdens are not too significant will be another element in boosting SME participation, Willems added. Still, in general, more support needs to be provided to these companies to facilitate their contribution.

She also noted the importance of mapping the skills and requirements of the current and future green transition to ensure that people have the proper training for an increasingly digitised workplace.

Addressing the digital skills gap has been a particular focus at the EU level in the past year, since the 2021 launch of the Commission’s Digital Decade targets, designed to boost specialised skills amongst ICT workers and more generalised abilities among the broader population.

Uneven progress

Progress towards these targets has not been even, with some countries out-performing others, and observers have warned that further action is likely needed if the goals are to be met before their 2030 end date.

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“If you want to make this transition and if you want to really make a change in real life, then you will have to make a bigger investment and give bigger support to small and medium-sized enterprises”, Willems said.

There are many ways for ICT SMEs to work sustainability into their business models, Iakovidis noted. For instance, through collaboration with refurbishers and manufacturers to allow the resale of products, contributing to a more circular economy and reducing product waste. 

Building a circular economy should be a top priority, he said, adding that this “is where digital can really show the power of decoupling our economy from ever-increasing use of natural resources.”

“That is the priority that we have to tap into, making sure that we minimise the rebound effect.”

[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/Alice Taylor]

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