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A Deep Dive into Sustainable Tech

Whether it’s using technology to transform sustainability or transforming tech itself to be sustainable, the roadmap to full integration is complex. But it’s worth it.

Sustainability has broad definitions and applications. And applying it holistically in technology has become urgent in recent years as the environmental impact of tech becomes more evident. 

The Internet accounts for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while aviation accounts for 2.1%. As the role digital plays in our lives grows, we must address its impact. This is vital to ensuring emerging tech becomes sustainable by default.  

Applying sustainability in tech has two main avenues. The first is to use tech innovations in the larger fight to mitigate the climate impact of all sectors. The second is integrating it within tech, instilling sustainability into its very structure. 

Good news is we’ve already embarked on the first route. Existing and emerging tech are increasingly used to create strategic sustainable solutions. Known as technology ecoadvantage, this approach has accelerated the development and application of sustainable solutions worldwide. 

Credits: Quang Nguyen Vinh

 

Urban planning implement digital technology like information modeling systems and augmented reality (AR) to visualize a blueprint before construction even begins. This reduces the energy and resources consumed during the process. Global company Infarm implements an AI-based biofeedback system to gather real-time data on their plants and accommodate the growing environment to their needs. 

Geothermal energy solutions allow the auto, energy, and tech sectors to rely solely on renewable & clean energy. A European minerals company adopted a digitally-enabled control tower with a cloud-enabled data platform, coupled with AI and advanced analytics, to reduce its energy consumption by up to 10%.

Devices that fall under the Internet of Things (IoT) have aided member countries’ efforts to reach UNDP’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Smart water-monitoring solutions and smart lighting initiatives are some IoT devices helping shorten the journey to net zero. 

Integrating Sustainability into Tech 
Tech’s application to achieve sustainability doesn’t speak to its impact on the environment. Data centers running the most efficient technologies like blockchain and AI require immense energy. They also generate a lot of heat, ranging from 20 to 300 MW. And that is just a portion of its overall impact. Each step of a technology’s life cycle leaves an unmissable mark. 

The Impact of Tech at Each Stage

Whether it’s using technology to transform sustainability or transforming tech itself to be sustainable, the roadmap to full integration is complex. But it’s worth it.

Production

The hardware we use leaves a massive footprint on the Earth. The manufacturing process of electronic devices alone is a significant chunk–about 70% of total company emissions, as reported by Apple.

Raw materials for producing electronics are sourced from mining fossil fuels and precious metals like lithium and cobalt. This endangers miners and leads to resource depletion, deforestation, water pollution, and adverse outcomes.

Some companies have even been found to intentionally create electronics with a short lifetime. In most cases, devices’ batteries die within three or four years. Considering it’s glued to the device, the only option is to throw it away–and that’s by design.

To combat this, tech companies across the globe have begun adopting a circular economic model to create sustainable modes of production. Last year, Apple announced it would be employing recycled materials during production, like tungsten and other precious metals.

Intel launched its Earthion program in 2021, outlining its pledge to use 100% renewable energy by 2035, up to 30% of post-consumer recycled materials by 2025, and more. Initiatives like these create a standard of best practices for the industry centered on positioning sustainability as the default.

It’s also critical that those within the industry take account of the Internet’s impact and closely audit each aspect that carries harmful implications. This year, we partnered with Omidyar Network to do just that. We created the 2022 Webby Trend Report, It’s Up to Us: A Responsible Tech Future. From a survey of over 300 digital industry experts, we explored the guiding principles shaping current responsible tech policies and industry standards. We found it ultimately up to those within tech to create systems that allow our digital world to be sustainable.

Use

Integrating sustainability also means ensuring the products are efficient and use energy strategically throughout their lifetime. For example, streaming all of Breaking Bad on Netflix parallels the emissions from driving 27 miles. An average scroll of about two-and-a-half hours daily equates driving over 330 miles in a petrol-based car.

On a larger scale, a data-driven company with about 100 employees can generate 4590 GB of data each day. This equates to 10.67 tons of CO2, similar to the carbon footprint of flying from London to New York 10 times a day.

There is hope, though, and it’s not at all bleak. Innovations like hydroelectric and geothermal energy are being used as sources of electricity in countries like Iceland to tip the scale away from using fossil fuels for power.

Data centers are being transformed with cost-effective and optimized cooling solutions to mitigate the heat released into the air. Recent initiatives are even redirecting it into homes and buildings, making sure it doesn’t end up in the atmosphere.

Energy-efficient software is being developed to optimize the energy consumed by Netizens’ daily use. Organizations like The Green Web Foundation have even started creating softwares that digital platforms can use to track and analyze their emissions. This’ll allow them to adopt more energy-aware and efficient strategies. 

 

Disposal

Unfortunately, if the runoff from production and use is mitigated, the impact of disposal poses a  threat. More than $62 billion worth of electronics are thrown away every year.

While the companies behind the devices have recycling initiatives, most still end up in landfills, massively adding to air and water pollution. Using burning as an alternative will push toxic chemicals into the air. Even worse, the device can cause serious harm once toxic chemicals inside the batteries leak.

This has pushed governing bodies to take action. New York’s 2022 Right-to-Repair law gives consumers the right to fix their devices as they see fit, pushing for repair instead of disposal.

In 2022, the European Union (EU) passed an amendment establishing a single charger solution for applicable devices to reduce consumer waste.

However, all this makes it evident there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to integrating sustainability into technology. Every region, every sector, and everybody has access to different resources and tools.

It can look like using tech to reduce the negative effects of businesses and large enterprises on the environment. It can also be repurposing the negative output of tech into something sustainable or finding ways to slow it down. It can also mean pushing companies to design products to be repaired instead of devices with a pre-determined end date. 

There are steps everyday folks can take, from making the most out of the devices they already have to opting for second-hand instead of retail when it’s time for new ones. At the end of a device’s life cycle, users can seek safe disposal or recycling alternatives to the usual garbage can. 

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