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SUSTAINABILITY| 28.09.2020

How to manage pollution caused by technology

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As we are in the midst of an energy transition to curb the effects of global warming, it has been constantly repeated that the key to achieving this is technology. And it’s only with continuous development and the help of new innovations like Artificial Intelligence, Big Data or 5G that these goals can be achieved.

However, the massive use of such technology in itself leads to a considerable increase in pollution. First, more and more data centers are needed to meet growing connection needs, and second, consumption of electronic products is unstoppable. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are currently 22 billion devices connected to the Internet (3.5 billion cellphones), a figure that offers a good example of the amount of electronic waste that can accumulate.

Increased consumption

With regard to the first issue, there is no doubt that energy consumption by data centers continues to grow, given that the volume of information is constantly increasing worldwide.

 Storage needs increase every day, as do the devices capable of connecting to the Internet or the facilities responsible for cooling those data centers. If this is combined with the fact that the arrival and implementation of 5G will quickly multiply connected equipment that transmits data, it is not surprising that some sources indicate that this consumption demands 2 percent of the world’s electricity production, which in turn leads to the emission of polluting gases.

 These estimates will increase in 2020, as according to the studies of consulting firm McKinsey, the Internet will generate between 3 percent and 4 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. In this sense, Greenpeace goes even further, placing the figure generated by online traffic at 7 percent of global electricity consumption.

Surprising examples

 These global figures may be substantial. However, there are examples of how the use of new technologies affects the environment that are less surprising. According to a study carried out by the French Environment Agency, sending an email consisting of 1 MB of data causes 18 grams of carbon dioxide pollution.

 If that is extrapolated to all the emails sent in the world every day, the number of grams of CO2 soars to 293 billion. The agency adds that sending 20 emails a day for a year is equivalent to driving 1,000 kilometers by car in terms of pollution.

 Of course, it should also be noted that sending an email or buying a song online causes less pollution than sending a letter or buying a CD. Not to mention that any video conference, even with the high bandwidth and data it consumes, prevents travel that would ultimately be much more damaging to the environment.

How to deal with the problem

Faced with this growing pollution, large technology companies are working to minimize the impact of their large data centers spread across the globe.

 The measures being taken are aimed at reducing their energy consumption, either by optimizing systems (for example, through Artificial Intelligence) or by placing data centers in areas with a colder climate, so that cooling is not so expensive. The use of renewable energy also reduces the level of pollution.

The MAPFRE example

Conscious of this situation, MAPFRE has reacted by seeking solutions to reduce the footprint of its Data Processing Center, which accounts for 24 percent of the electricity that the company consumes annually in Spain (which accounts for half of its global consumption) and 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

To do so, the DPC has a high energy efficiency design, with a specific cooling system and optimal placement of IT equipment, to achieve energy savings of more than 75 percent compared to other conventional systems. Added to this is solar thermal installation capable of producing domestic hot water and a special configuration to optimize the freecooling function.

However, it should be noted that since 2016, all the energy that MAPFRE purchases comes from 100 percent renewable sources. Moreover, the company requires energy sellers to provide certificates guaranteeing renewable origin to meet the electricity demand of the facilities, which translates into a reduction of 21,272.94 TnCO2e in the company’s annual emissions.

Technological waste

Emitting polluting gases is not the only environmental problem caused by new technologies. As we indicated above, it is estimated that around 22 billion devices are connected to the Internet around the world, many of which are constantly being updated. This causes about 50 million tons of technological waste to be generated each year according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Thus, there is a problem with all those scrap parts as some of the components are very polluting. And far from improving, the situation is getting worse. The United Nations believes that if current habits are maintained, the amount of technological waste will increase to 120 million tons per year by 2050.

Less planned obsolescence and more recycling

To curb this dangerous trend—which will be exacerbated by the definitive arrival of 5G and its greater capacity to connect devices to the Internet—everything points to two parallel paths: increasing the average lifespan of devices and recycling those that are discarded.

Therefore, we must first combat the planned obsolescence that the industry has been using in manufacturing its products. In this case, an important decision was made in the European Parliament in 2017 with the “Longer Lifetime for Products: Benefits for Consumers and Companies” resolution. This directive aims to reduce scrap parts in technology: first, more tools are provided for users to repair their equipment and, second, tax benefits are provided to companies that make their products more durable.

Finally, recycling must be encouraged. According to the UN, only 20 percent of waste is currently being recycled. The United Nations itself, in Sustainable Development Goal 12, makes it very clear that we must “urgently reduce our ecological footprint by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources.”