Big Tech drives overconsumption (Part 2)

As we fast approach 2030, it is clear we will not be even close to achieving the target reductions set out for CO2. And please remember, CO2 is just one of the multiple crises the environment faces. Tactics to reduce CO2 may in fact accelerate other crises, such as biodiversity, water, soil. This will particularly happen if they are based—which they are—on the assumption that we can still have it all, that we can still keep growing—once we do the “Green” Transition.

For years, the tech sector promised that if we digitalize everything, we could achieve amazing CO2 reductions and all sorts of other “efficiencies”. Enormous, mind-boggling reductions of 12 gigatons or 20% of the total global CO2 were there for the taking once we invested massively in digital, said the tech lobbyists. Mobile network lobbyists gushed forth reports that said that if everything went mobile, an astonishing 2:1 avoidance ratio for CO2 could be achieved.

If the above claims seem fantastical, you have clearly little experience working within the tech industry. In our industry, we sit there and think of a number, then we double it, add a million to it and finally multiply it by 100, and hey presto, we have the new number that defines the new future.

Widely shared and quoted reports from the tech and mobile lobbyists “show major methodological flaws and their results should be used with extreme caution,” a 2023 published study reviewing digitalization promises states. The 12 gigaton CO2 savings report “proceeds by extrapolation from industrial case studies and conversations with experts. As an example, they estimate a potential of avoided emissions for mobility at 3.6 GtCO2e by 2030, based on the hypothesis that digitalization could reduce car production by ?15%, fuel consumed by ?30%, and all freight (maritime, road, and air) between ?20 and ?30%.”

Global car production was about 80 million units a year in 2015 and is predicted to be about 100 million units a year by 2040. So no magical reduction there. Cars have also got much heavier and much more full of electronics, meaning that everything from mining to tire pollution has risen too. Despite some shift to electric cars, global fuel consumption trends are aggressively rising. Instead of a 20% or 30% decline, as the report effusively predicted, global freight is in fact expecting modest growth over the coming years from already totally unsustainable levels.

So, none of these predictions were even remotely accurate. They were never meant to be. They were meant to help sell the latest technology and they served their purpose very well. When challenged, the tech illusionists would say that the problem was that we didn’t digitalize fast enough. Think of how much worse things could have been had we not spent trillions on technology, and think of how much better they could have been had we doubled the trillions we spent. We just didn’t embrace technology enough. Whatever the problem is, the answer is always: more technology.

The mobile lobbyists’ report used numbers that were equally plucked out of the polluted air and multiplied many times. It estimated that over 200 megatons of CO2 were avoided in 2018 because people chose Airbnb instead of hotels. Except that the hotel industry continued to grow nicely in 2018. In many markets and sectors, Airbnb is additive and complementary. As is most tech. It’s additive, not transformative. There will be no “Green” Transition. That’s just marketing, branding, advertising. What we’re getting is the Greed Addition.

A long road ahead: a review of the state of knowledge of the environmental effects of digitization, Gauthier Roussilhe, Anne-Laure Ligozat, Sophie Quinton, Environmental Sustainability, 2023

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