Panel discussion: Digital Sustainability

Year of production: 2023

What is digital sustainability? 

Digital sustainability refers to the ways in which online resources and IT in general can be harnessed to build a more sustainable society; to reduce our negative impact on the environment and slow down human-made climate change. The digital transformation offers the opportunity to develop more sustainable systems, resources and tools which could leave a better world for those that follow.  Digital can be a disruptive force, which is an enabler of a more sustainable future. But, those tools and online systems, and our use of them, must be designed in a way that is sustainable, otherwise we risk not realising the potential of a sustainable digital transformation


Is digital transformation sustainable?

There is a widespread misconception amongst the general public that online = greener; that digital is, by its nature, more environmentally friendly than its opposite (in real life/physical experiences/tools/activities). This is difficult to know for sure because of a lack of assessment of environmental impact of digitisation on EU level, as well as similar shortage of data on the social impacts of digitisation. What we do know, however, is that current systems and our use of technology do have a significant impact on the environment, because they are based on energy consumption and the simple production of energy leaves an environmental footprint.


Digital is physical – Did you know?

  • Bitcoin consumes 110 Terawatt Hours per year , or roughly equivalent to the annual energy draw of small countries like Malaysia or Sweden. One bitcoin transaction could power a US home for 70 days. 
  • 15 billion smartphones have been created since 2007
  • 60kg of CO2 is emitted to produce the average smartphone and 14,000 litres of water are used. 
  • The “cloud” is underground – it is infrastructure and physical machines made up of 70 million servers.


Is digital a silver bullet?

Digital tools are neither good nor bad, rather it depends on how they are used. It is about directing digital tools in the best way, for a more sustainable outcome. Instead of producing more, for example, digital can help us to produce better. Taking one example in agriculture, digital tools can be designed to increase productivity, using tech to minimise the use of fertilisers, helping to produce high yields with a lower impact on the environment. But, not every service or activity needs to be digitised and it is not always the most sustainable – or accessible – choice to move services online. Sharing of goods and services has been another way to bring benefits to consumers, as well as environmental ones, but these services are often not attractive in terms of price. So, there’s a public policy role, to encourage sustainable innovation with real benefits for people. 


The winners of the digital transformation

The winners of the digital transformation aren’t always the ones who are working towards a more sustainable, equitable future. Often online platforms are competing for consumers’ attention to advertise products to them, are the ones who are at the forefront of investment and innovation in online tools. There is a need to rethink – driven by policy – the model, which is dominated by a small number of enormous corporates. Open source or cooperative business models targeted towards environmental/social goals instead of maximising profit, could help to drive a truly sustainable digital transformation


Young people & the youth field

It is vital to start a holistic conversation in society about how to achieve a sustainable digital revolution. To ensure that an increasingly online world does not perpetuate certain divides, such as patriarchal systems and gender stereotypes. Young people understand well the potential of digital and they can be enablers of a sustainable digital transformation. We should involve them in a conversation about what a democratic sustainable digital future looks like.

There’s a big role for young people and youth movements to get involved in creating a truly sustainable digital transformation, through activism, through raising up voices to policy makers on e.g., the role of big tech or in getting involved in grassroots movements like the “right to repair” and to fight back against the culture of digital which is one of consumption. 


The generation of digital waste? 

Tips: How to lessen your digital carbon footprint

  • Hold on to your device for as long as possible! A phone should last for ten years and a laptop for 20 years, so repair it, if possible. Many movements are calling for the “right to repair” devices which are built to be more and more unserviceable by end users, and this has already became a topic for European regulations. Celebrate the old rather than always wanting the new.
  • We’re building data dumps! Don’t hold on to your data – clean up and delete. 9 trillion photos are stored on the cloud. More photos were taken in 2019 than in the entire 20th century. But, 95% of data is not accessed 3 months after it is taken.
  • Take a digital detox: a bit of time out can help reassess your relationship with online tools, apps and social media, which we know are designed to be addictive and may have a deleterious effect on wellbeing. 
  • Consider using “challenger”, smaller tools/platforms to break the power of big tech. 
  • Examine the “digital weight” of your online communications – the lightest form of digital message is a text message; an audio-only online meeting is much less energy-consumptive than a video one. 
  • When it comes to online youth activities, the environmental impact of online should also always be assessed, as it is with in-person activities.


Panel: “Digital Sustainability”  

This was the third of six panel sessions hosted by SALTO Participation & Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI) and SALTO Inclusion and Diversity Resource Centre (SALTO I&D) on Inclusive & Participatory Digital Transformation.


The event featured:

  • Kris De Decker (author of Low-tech Magazine, an online publication that refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution)
  • Gerry McGovern (writer, whose latest book, World Wide Waste, examines digital’s impact on the environment)
  • Katharina Wiese, (ecofeminist and is a Senior Policy Officer for Economic Transition and Gender Equality at the European Environmental Bureau – EEB)



Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.