34th Chaos Communication Congress

»Digitalization and the environment«
2017-12-29, 22:15–22:45, Saal Borg

In this talk, I address the question whether digitalization is likely to help decoupling economic growth from the environmental impacts of economic activities. In a first step, I summarize the literature on the impact of digitalization on growth and the environment. In a second step, I point out several concepts, in particular sufficiency, open source and commons, that may help to reconcile digitalization and environmental sustainability.

Digitalization is said to revolutionize not only industrial production but almost any aspect of our lives: Digital devices change the way we consume (online-shopping), we communicate (social media), our mobility forms (car and bike sharing, autonomous cars) and the way we organize our communities (smart cities). At the same time, environmental questions are barely discussed. There are mostly vague statements that industry 4.0 will make the economy more sustainable by increasing resource- and energy-efficiencies (Huber, 2013). However, in recent years a number of scientific investigations have shed more light on the issue. This talk summarizes these findings and thereby addresses the issue, whether digitalization can actually help to reduce the environmental impact of our economic activities. The central question is: Will the digitalization of our economy help to decouple economic growth and environmental impact? One of the central promises of digitalization is economic growth. In Germany, the discourse on digitalization is driven by influential industries, who have come up with the term Industrie 4.0 (engl.: industry 4.0). It implies the application of new digital technologies in production processes, in particular to organize production with less human labor. In other words: It means to increase labor productivity. If this development is only half as revolutionary as promised, labor productivity will rise significantly. One possible scenario is that these increases in productivity are used for a new phase of economic growth. In case of full-time employment, large increases in labor productivity imply high growth in GDP. As Niko Paech (2017) and Tilman Santarius (2017) have argued, this puts the question of decoupling economic growth from environmental throughput back on the agenda. It appears to be improbable that digitalization will allow for a sufficient decoupling under the economic regime that exists. As a reminder: The increases in resource-efficiency need to be speeded up from a current average of 1.5% to 4.4%, to reach climate goals. And even that would only keep us under 2 °C (and not 1.5 °C as recommended by many environmental scientists) to a probability of 66% (Antal & Bergh, 2016). But even if sufficient decoupling is unlikely, can it help to achieve at least absolute decoupling (that is, at least some absolute reductions in environmental impacts)? Research so far shows a positive relationship between digitalization, energy use and economic growth. The (preliminary) analysis is that digitalization simultaneously leads to economic growth (as it leads to higher labor productivity) and to more energy use (because ICTs need energy to work) (Cardona, Kretschmer, & Strobel, 2013; Salahuddin & Alam, 2016). And even if it was possible to use digitalization to decouple economic growth from greenhouse gases: It would probably lead to other environmental problems, in particular regarding resource extraction (Pilgrim, Groneweg, & Reckordt, 2017). This does not mean that digitalization has to be negative in general when it comes to environmental sustainability. The transition to 100% renewables is difficult to imagine without digital technologies (Zimmermann, Wolf, & Baum, 2016). And digitalization opens up many opportunities to increase resource- und energy efficiencies. However, the current economic structure, including its continuous generation of economic growth, countervails such positive features. The question is therefore, how to use the opportunities of digitalization while preventing its adverse environmental effects. A key concept is sufficiency. It is well-known in environmental sciences. Sufficiency implies that new technologies are combined with new patterns of individual behaviour, in order to achieve better environmental results (Jenny, 2014). Sufficiency can also be applied to digitalization, in particular regarding the design of information and communication technologies and concerning the data-intensity of software. However, designs of hardware and software are tightly related to the question, who develops them and for what purpose. Here, the concepts of commons (Helfrich & Bollier, 2012), open source (Gibb, 2014) and collaborative platforms (Scholz, 2016) may be good starting points to steer towards a type of digitalization that is truly sustainable.

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