These months of pandemic and social distancing have been marked by the disruptive entry of digital technology into the lives of all of us, as a tool to manage every aspect of our existence: school, work, shopping, training.
The official figures reflect this huge growth: according to Akamai's report, global Internet traffic grew by 30% from the end of February to the end of March 2020 . Surely COVID has accelerated the digital race, but the growth of this sector is a phenomenon that has been known for some time: in 2019, according to a study by Deloitte, as many as 93% of Italians owned a smartphone, one in four Italians owned a smart phone. watch and / or a fitness band, three out of five were willing to spend 17 euros a month to control and manage their home from their smartphone, 1 Italian out of 2 was a mobile gamer .
When, after the peak of the contagion, there was talk of economic recovery, the relaunch of digital immediately assumed a key role in the agendas of all European countries. However, although the digital sector is one of the most promising for economic development in the coming years, little is said about its environmental impact. On the contrary, there is a tendency to focus attention on the contribution of smart technologies to sustainable development: think of the digitization of buildings or the reduction of unnecessary travel.
In reality, all the so-called “dematerialized” procedures exploit a complex and very material system, made up of networks, terminals, collection centers. The data is actually electrical impulses, or electromagnetic waves produced by current-fed antennas; the large servers that store data are also powered by electricity, as are all the electronic devices we use. Digital is therefore responsible for 4.2% of world energy consumption . And it is an energy still largely produced from fossil sources.
Where is all this energy absorbed from?
In the first place, from telecommunications networks: Internet, telephone and telematic networks, computers, whose traffic is constantly increasing; by Data Centers, which meet the need for data storage; from the Internet of Things, the complex of networks that uses robots, artificial intelligence, sensors to automate production lines; finally from all connected devices: computers, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, home automation devices.
Digital was at the origin of 3.7% of global GHG emissions in 2018; just think, by way of comparison, that the emission of gases due to light transport vehicles (cars, motorcycles) is responsible for about 8% of global emissions. 44% of this pollution is due to the manufacturing of the devices, which requires processes of extraction and processing of highly polluting materials; 56% is due to their use .
Unfortunately, the forecasts for the future are not positive: in a world where the space occupied by digital continues to increase day by day, emissions related to the sector could reach up to 14% by 2040. In this context, the European Union is aiming on promoting initiatives aimed at improving the energy efficiency of data centers and telecommunications in general, with the aim of bringing them to climate neutrality by 2030 . Recently, even large private groups, such as Microsoft, Aruba, Facebook, have engaged in the development of low-power servers.
Technologies are perfected year after year, to create devices that consume less and less: the concept of Green Computing, or Green Information Technology, was born in 1992 with the aim of setting minimum energy targets for electronic devices. However, the increase in data traffic is much faster than the reduction in electricity consumption. In addition, the continued launch of new and powerful devices increases the volume of difficult-to-dispose of electronic waste. Digital can be a great opportunity for our civilization, improving the quality of life of each of us. This is undoubted. But equally unquestionable is the gravity of the climate situation on our planet and the urgency with which the issue needs to be addressed.
What to do then?
At the institutional level, decisive action is needed, in several directions. In the first place, a virtuous use of the network should be promoted, for example by regulating telephone offers, developing legislation on sustainable data management, encouraging the design of more eco-friendly devices and less energy-intensive data centers. Recycling could then be encouraged in the manufacture of new terminals, fighting against planned obsolescence, favoring repairs, taxing the negative externalities due to manufacturing.
But these actions alone cannot be enough. To reverse the trend, users must become aware of the impact that digital has on the environment. An awareness that can only take place with the collaboration of the media, which have not yet explored the topic adequately, as well as public and private actors, who must be asked to assess the environmental impact of their digital strategy. Only by being informed about the environmental costs that digital entails, every citizen will have the tools to understand the importance of its sober and responsible use: not forgetting the devices on or under charge, purchasing, when possible, refurbished products, using the functions of saving energy and limiting content sharing.
Translated by Arianna Giannino
Sources consulted for this article:
 The state of the internet, Akamai, 2020, https://www.akamai.com/it/it/resources/our-thinking/state-of-the-internet-report/global-state-of-the- internet-security-ddos-attack-reports.jsp
 Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2019, Deloitte, 2019, https://www2.deloitte.com/it/it/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/global-mobile-consumer-survey-2019-- -deloitte-italy --- tmt.html
 Commission de aménagement du territoire et du développement durable, Report of information of the mission of information sur l'empreinte environnementale du numérique, 2020, http://www.senat.fr/rap/r19-555 /r19-555-syn.pdf
 The new EU strategy for digital, Office for Relations with the European Union, Chamber of Deputies, 30/04/2020, http://documenti.camera.it/leg18/dossier/pdf/AT032.pdf