"Spain can". Under this slogan, the Plan for the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience of the Spanish Economy, one of the largest investment packages ever made in Spain to address the post-COVID-19 recovery, was presented last 7th of October. Financed with European funds, the plan sets two main priorities: "green" investment and digitalisation. The choice of these priorities is not accidental, but rather responds to the desire of the European Union for Member States to tackle the effects of the pandemic through the ecological and digital transitions, in an ambitious and integrated manner. This willingness is not new. Already in February of this year, with COVID-19 entering through Italy, the EU announced a package of measures combining the EU's Digital Strategy with the European Green Deal to achieve a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050, as well as addressing other relevant environmental issues.
This is clearly the right time and the key context to start a necessary transition. In 2009, a study published by 28 scientists set alarm bells ringing by quantifying, for the first time, something long feared: humanity is pushing the limits of the planet's capacity. Crossing these limits not only puts animal and plant species - and even entire ecological systems - at risk, it puts us as a society at risk.
The global economy operated in a virtually circular model until a couple of centuries ago. It was not until the First Industrial Revolution that two parallel forces were unleashed worldwide: the acceleration of resource extraction and that of consumer demand, which drove the new linear model of 'take-produce-dispose'. The Second Industrial Revolution - mass production, deployment of electricity and electronics - and the Third - automation, the Internet, etc. - consolidated the linear economic model and accelerated it, integrating it deeply into our society. What if the fourth was the defeated Revolution?
Enabled avoided carbon emissions by category
Source: Digital Future Society, from GSMA data (2019)
We live in an era characterised by "a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres", the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like the revolutions that preceded it, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to increase global prosperity by improving the quality of life for communities around the world. But it also has the potential to address what has become the defining challenge of our time: the ecological and climate transition.
Emerging as a result of this latest industrial revolution, emerging technologies - also known as tech- are levers available to governments, businesses and citizens to combat global environmental challenges. Most importantly, they are key enablers for increasing ambition in addressing the climate and environmental emergency. The report “Digital with a purpose” concludes that tech can have a positive impact on 103 out of 169 targets of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. In the same vein, the Exponential Roadmap states that tech could help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15% through solutions related to energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, etc.
Tech applications are many and varied, and their development and implementation are not limited to technology giants alone. The Barcelona-based Electronic Reuse Association, through its eReuse project, uses blockchain technology to extend the life of electronic devices. It ensures a 95% recycling rate and transforms the cost for municipalities into revenue that stays in the community, creating one job for every 300 items reused. From San Francisco to Rwanda, there are hundreds of examples of how tech can address some of the world's most difficult problems.
The restorative potential of tech is enormous. However, their environmental impact is also overwhelming. Current energy consumption in the ICT sector is estimated to be between 5% and 9% of global electricity consumption, with a carbon footprint equivalent to 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This is almost equivalent to the emissions from fuel consumption of civil air transport. Therefore, reducing the environmental footprint of tech should be part of the post-COVID-19 recovery agenda.
The time is now. A recent article published by McKinsey&Company highlights how one of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a qualitative leap in digital adoption worldwide and on a scale never seen before. This represents a necessary and unique opportunity to strengthen and reposition the global industry and economy, but also to reactivate - in a green way - a development model in Europe and Spain that embraces the ecological and digital transition under a single silo.
If the right policies and investments are implemented, digitalisation can be a key factor in tackling the ecological and climate emergency, but for this to happen justice, equity, inclusiveness and sustainability must be the guiding principles. When the "new normality" finally arrives, let us remember: we live in a physical world of finite resources, which is why the digital world cannot be considered unlimited.
This article is based on the content of the report "Risks and opportunities of emerging tech in the climate decade", published by the Digital Future Society.
About Digital Future Society:
The Digital Future Society is an initiative of the Third Vice-presidency of the Spanish Government - Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation, Red.es and Mobile World Capital Barcelona. It seeks to build a more equitable and inclusive future in the digital age to improve the impact of technology on society.