Can digitisation be green?

The prejudice is widespread: Digitisation is driving up electricity consumption (and thus greenhouse gas emissions). But it's not that simple. Digital solutions certainly have what it takes to reduce global energy requirements and thus contribute to climate protection.

The experts are not in complete agreement, but the comparisons are all gigantic: the cryptocurrency Bitcoin (more on this shortly on //next), created and kept running by huge server farms, now consumes as much energy as New Zealand and Belgium combined, as the Netherlands or Norway. But no matter what electricity demand cryptocurrency actually corresponds to: Bitcoin is without question just one example (others are streaming or googling) of how, with increasing digitalisation, the consumption of electricity and thus also the emission of greenhouse gases (with corresponding electricity production using fossil raw materials such as coal or natural gas) is increasing. By the way, we have compiled tips on how to reduce your private electricity consumption when surfing and streaming here

But isn't it possible the other way around? Can digitisation also be green? Are there digital innovations that can help protect the climate? The majority of Germans certainly believe so: 56 percent were certain in a representative survey in fall 2019 that climate change can be combated through digital technologies. The industry association Bitkom, which commissioned the study at the time, has since had the environmental and digitisation experts at management consultancy Accenture do the math. The result: the Germans were right. Digital technologies can save 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In this country, they could help Germany meet its climate targets by 2030. It would be possible to reduce CO2 emissions by a whopping 120 megatons in ten years through the targeted and accelerated use of digital solutions.

Energy consumption in production and transport decreases

It is well known that the energy industry emits the most greenhouse gases in this country. This sector will reduce its emissions primarily thanks to the energy transition to wind, solar, biomass and the like. But transportation follows right behind. This is where digitisation can play to its strengths. In addition to sharing mobility services, intelligent traffic control is a key factor in transportation. For example, sensors on the road or GPS systems in cars provide data that can be used to control traffic lights, reroute traffic flows, or boost public transportation. Smart logistics can also avoid empty runs and optimize freight routes.

The same applies to industrial manufacturing, where 19 percent of all CO2 emissions occur. Experts agree that digital technologies have the greatest potential to reduce CO2 emissions in this segment. A good example of this is the so-called "digital twin. These virtual images of complete production and operating cycles make it possible for processes to be tested first on the digital rather than the real object - in this way, massive savings can be made in materials, energy and resources.  

In the Buildings segment, the buzzword is "smart meters". These can automatically turn down radiators when a window is opened or turn off the lights when occupants leave for work. But that is by no means all. The washing machine kicks in when a lot of wind power is pushing into the grid that would otherwise have to be curtailed, or when (as at night) there is hardly any demand for electricity. In large office and business complexes, digital solutions regulate heating, ventilation or air conditioning depending on weather conditions or the number of employees present. Added to this is the digitalisation of office work (for example, video conferencing instead of business travel), as the world has already seen (or has seen) in increased use in the wake of the Corona pandemic. 

However, part of the whole truth is that digitisation not only offers promising potential for climate protection. The various solutions will of course also be associated with corresponding carbon dioxide emissions. After all, it's not just end devices that have to be manufactured. The same applies to network infrastructure and data centers, which also need to be operated. The bottom line, however, is that experts are optimistic: The CO2 savings potential of the various digital technologies will be significantly higher than their own emissions. Whether this potential will be two, three or around five times as high is not yet entirely clear. But, as we know, neither is the exact bitcoin power consumption. 

Text: Jochen Schuster

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