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Impacts of the digital transformation on the environment and sustainability

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Liu, Ran, Peter Gailhofer, Carl-Otto Gensch, Andreas Köhler, and Franziska Wollf. 2019. “Impacts of the Digital Transformation on the Environment and Sustainability.” ENV.F.1./FRA/2014/006. Freiburg, Germany: Öko-Institut.

On 21 st of November 2019, the Luxembourg Times reported that Google’s plan to build a vast data
centre in central Luxembourg raised significant worries in society, especially concerning the data
centre’s energy and water consumption. 1 It is estimated that the data centre’s operation requires
10 million litres of water per day, which is about 10% of the country’s overall water consumption.
Another article describes that the data centre is expected to consume 7% of the country's energy
supply in phase I, up to 12% in phase II. Other concerns are noise and air pollution2. The example
shows that digitalisation can have grave effects on the environment.
This paper reviews findings on the (potential) impacts of the digitalisation (or “digital transfor-
mation”) on the environment, with a focus on non-energy impacts. This decision was deliberate for
the purpose of this issue paper since the evidence base on link between digitalisation and energy
use or greenhouse gas emission is much wider and well documented already whereas this is not
the case for other environmental pressures, impacts and opportunities.
But what is ‘digitalisation’? We understand it to mean ‘the development and application of digital
and digitalised technologies that augment and dovetail with all other technologies and methods’
(WBGU, 2019c).
Digitalisation is expected to have profound (‘transformative’) effects on the economy, society, and
politics as well as on the planet itself. This includes the production, use and disposal of hardware
(Information and Communication Technologies equipment, data centres, data transmission net-
works) as well as of software, digital technologies and applications – ranging from robotics, the
Internet of Things (IoT), via distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain, to Artificial Intelli-
gence (AI). However, the interactions between the digital transformation and the environmental
crisis have not been high on the agenda of the political debates and policy making at EU level over
the past 10 years. This is about to change with the launch of the ‘European Green Deal’ (EGD) and
the recent publication of the EEA’s State of the Environment Report.
There are many positive expectations and viewpoints that digital transformation and innovation
could and should contribute to a better life for all / most and to sustainable development. Mean-
while, there are also numerous studies estimating the environmental benefits or abatement poten-
tial, e.g. the indirect GHG reduction achieved through digitalisation, discussing possible opportuni-
ties and risks resulting from digitalisation and evaluating the indirect effects, including systemic
environmental impacts associated with certain applications. Thus, digitalisation has been both de-
scribed as a potential ecological “fire accelerant” (WBGU, 2019c) and as an ecological “game
changer” (Seele & Lock, 2017).
The overall objective of the paper is to gather a first glimpse on available, up-to-date evidence on
positive and negative environmental effects of the digital transformation in a holistic way. However,
for practical reasons the focus of this paper is on non-energy and non-GHG aspects because en-
ergy and climate related risks and opportunities of digitalisation are generally more well-known.
The key findings are summarised below

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