Digitalisation’s dark side

Ashutosh Kumar Tripathi | Updated on August 31, 2021

Digital tech is environment unfriendly and unsustainable

The adoption and use of digital technologies such as smartphones, social media, cloud-based systems, robots, and artificial intelligence (AI) have increasingly reshaped people’s perceptions, actions, and environments. And have been associated with a myriad of benefits for individuals, organisations, and societies in terms of enhanced decision-making, economic growth, increased productivity, and connectivity.

The digital revolution has been aggressive and fast moving. Over the last four decades, personal computers have increased in storage volume and processing speeds by huge magnitudes. The global IP traffic, which was just 100 GB per day three decades ago, has gone up to 1,50,000 GB per second.

The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating digital adoption at both industry and organisational levels and transforming businesses forever.

However, the rise of digital technologies has started revealing a number of “dark sides” with grave impacts at the individual, organisational, and societal level. There had been considerable attention by the modern society on the bright sides of digitalisation but little attention has been given to its negative environmental footprint.

Exploitation of resources

Digital technology industry is considered among the most unsustainable and environmentally damaging industrial sector in the modern world. To meet the growing demand of modern digital technologies (from tablets and smartphones to televisions and electric cars), the tech firms are ramping-up extraction of rare earth elements and other precious metals like cobalt. The exploitation of such resources are often hugely environmentally damaging and raises concerns regarding the release of heavy metals and radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

The growing digital traffic, which requires a vast and distributed digital infrastructure, is scaling up energy consumption and carbon emissions, including from coal-fired power plants. For instance, the world’s data centres (the storehouses for enormous quantities of information), consume about three per cent of the global electricity supply (more than the entire United Kingdom), and produce two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the same as global air travel. Greenpeace report shows that Chinese data centres produced around 99 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018.

There is growing problem with AI’s digital footprint. One study showed that training a large AI model, that is, feeding data into the system and making predictions, can emit more than 284 tonnes of CO2. Similarly, in the case of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies which rely on blockchain technology, validation process requires vast amounts of electricity, which translates into a significant level of carbon emissions. A 2019 study shows that emissions produced by Bitcoin is as much as the levels produced by the countries like Jordan and Sri Lanka.


Another area of concern is electronic waste (e-waste), which is a by-product of data centre activities. Much e-waste contains concentrated amounts of potentially harmful products. Technology redundancy and planned obsolescence are major contributing factors to mounting stocks of e-waste. As per some estimates, e-waste accounts for two per cent of solid waste and 70 per cent of toxic waste in the United States.

A United Nations report suggests that the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of e-waste, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made and is worth over $62.5 billion which is more than the GDP of most countries. Only 20 per cent of this e-waste is recycled.

These approximations of carbon footprint of digitalisation underline the need to tackle the environmental externalities in order to capture the full potential of the digital economy and to survive the 21st century. This requires urgent system-wide action to make digital and green economy compatible with each other and reduce green house gas emission.

The writer teaches Economics at IIM Sambalpur. Views are personal

Published on August 31, 2021

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