Issue: September 2019, Digitalisation – Strategies for more sustainability
Behind the screens
Energy and resource demand for digitalisation
It could be the saviour of sustainability – a great opportunity to conserve energy and resources: in the power sector, through the balancing of production and consumption; in transport, through a networked infrastructure and vehicle-sharing; and in industry, through smart and efficient manufacturing processes. Where sustainability is concerned, however, digitalisation has its downsides – by increasing energy and resource use, for example. Not only do digital technologies themselves rely on these resources; they also encourage people to consume more by offering ease and convenience. With such a wide range of applications and opportunities available to users, a comprehensive overview of the energy and resource demand associated with digitalisation does not yet exist. The Oeko-Institut is working on various projects that aim to close the current knowledge gaps.
“Digitalisation has tremendous potential to save energy and resources,” says Jens Gröger, a Senior Researcher in the Oeko-Institut’s Sustainable Products and Material Flows Division. “Buildings are just one example: here, digitalisation enables us to control heating and lighting in line with demand. Or take vehicles, consumer goods and machinery: they no longer need to be owned by their users; instead, they can be shared via digital platforms. Dematerialisation through simulation and virtual realities is another example.” However, digitalisation can substantially increase energy and resource consumption at the same time, as Jens Gröger explains. “The manufacturing of smartphones and laptops, for example, requires large amounts of energy and resource inputs. These devices contain minerals such as gold, cobalt and rare earth metals, often extracted under problematical conditions. Only a fraction of these valuable resources can be recovered through recycling.”
Increase in data volume
Using IT devices also consumes energy, both to power the devices themselves and for data transmission and processing in computer centres. Usage has soared in recent years. According to the Federal Network Agency’s annual report for 2018, annual data volume usage in mobile communications increased from 0.4 to 2 billion gigabytes from 2014 to 2018. In fixed networks, data volume usage surged from 12 to 45 billion gigabytes over the same period. “Data volume usage is doubling every two years, so there is likely to be a correspondingly sharp increase in demand for infrastructure such as data networks and computer centres,” says Jens Gröger. “And that, in turn, is associated with increased demand for resources, land and energy. Digital technology already accounts for around 8% of German power consumption.”
As part of a brief expert report prepared for the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), which was set up by the Federal Government, the Oeko-Institut conducted a literature review which looked at the global energy and resource consumption resulting from digitalisation. “There are currently no studies that would permit any firm conclusions to be drawn about all the various areas of digitalisation,” Jens Gröger explains. “Nevertheless, we were able to shed light on certain aspects.” For example, the study highlights the very short lifespan of devices such as smartphones, laptops and consumer electronics and the associated problems of resource demand and resource losses. “We need more transparency on these issues, including environmental life-cycle assessments.”
Data centres, cloud computing services, software
As the short report for WBGU makes clear, we know far too little about energy and resource consumption resulting from digitalisation. The Oeko-Institut recommends progressively closing these knowledge gaps – and is contributing to this process with various projects of its own. For example, a study conducted for the German Environment Agency (UBA) focuses specifically on the resource efficiency of data centres and develops methods for conducting environmental impact assessments of these centres. Together with practitioner partners, the researchers developed a system of Key Performance Indicators for Data Centre Efficiency (KPI4DCE). “The system uses various indicators to assess the efficiency of data centres by looking at the ratio between output and resource inputs, such as processing power in relation to energy consumption,” Jens Gröger explains. Using the methodology developed by the Oeko-Institut, operators can now take targeted action to optimise their data centres and reduce their environmental footprint as well as their costs. “So if I extend the useful life of my devices or use them more efficiently, I can monitor the environmental impacts directly using this methodology.” The study can also be used to support the introduction of minimum environmental standards for data centres. “The EU’s Ecodesign Regulation for servers and data storage products is due to enter into force in 2020. It is likely that in future, minimum ecodesign standards will apply to data centres as a whole, comparable to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive,” he explains.
On behalf of the UBA, the Oeko-Institut is also analysing the environmental impact of cloud computing services such as online storage and the use of software via the Internet. Together with the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration (IZM), the Oeko-Institut is investigating these services’ energy and resource efficiency. Working with service providers, the project team is calculating how much of a carbon footprint is left by an hour of videostreaming, for example. “Based on the project findings, it will be possible to compare online services and develop minimum criteria for a Blue Angel ecolabel for cloud computing services,” says Jens Gröger.
A Blue Angel ecolabel could also be introduced for software products in future. The Oeko-Institut has laid the foundations for this in a joint project with the University of Zurich and the Environmental Campus Birkenfeld of Trier University of Applied Sciences. “It is, to a large extent, the software that determines how much energy a device uses. But all too often computers or smartphones run more slowly or stop working altogether after the software is updated. Consumers then have no option but to buy new hardware,” he says. A research project funded by the UBA took a closer look at software-related energy and resource consumption. It included developing a set of 25 criteria and 76 indicators for sustainable software, focusing on aspects such as energy efficiency, backward compatibility and platform independence. “The project showed that similar types of software behave in very different ways – for example, a less efficient word processing programme uses around four times more power than an efficient programme to produce the same document,” Jens Gröger says. The case studies also reveal quantifiable differences between browsers, Internet service provision and database systems.
The methodology to assess the environmental impacts of data centres and of hardware and software, and eco-labels for particularly efficient IT products are further steps towards sustainable digitalisation. This opens the way for digitalisation to have genuinely positive impacts instead of accelerating energy and resource consumption.
Jens Gröger specialises in sustainable consumption and product sustainability. A Senior Researcher at the Öko-Institut, his main areas of work include green procurement, eco-labels, and information and communication technologies.
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