Why We Need a Green Digital Revolution

The digital revolution has brought the enormous potential to change our economies and societies. With its growing role in our lives, however, so has grown the effect of digital services on the environment. If we do not act carefully and if we do not act now, the digital transformation may not just fail to save our planet, but even speed up its degradation.

While I am still one of those kids fascinated by technological development, digital transformation and connectivity, I am also concerned about the impact they have on our lives. 

I remember seeing the first very clear sign of technology becoming more and more immersed in our lives in the early 1990s when I saw my grandfather learning to use a personal computer to be able to keep up with trends. Witnessing how technology enabled so many opportunities for him quickly taught me the importance of digital transformation in our lives and had a clear impact on how I excelled later in life. Whenever I tell my kids about technology now, however, I need to also mention its impact on the climate.

The Earth is warming. If current trends continue, its average temperature could be 2.8-3.2°C higher by the end of the century (Desjardins, 2020, 62–63; Climate Action Tracker, 2021, 4). We feel the impact of this ourselves when experiencing unforeseen heat waves and dryness in Europe, as occurred both this and last summer. Reports show that humanity is on the verge of becoming unable to reverse climate change (IPCC, 2022) and we need to act now, preferably by choosing sustainable actions that do not limit the economic, social and environmental opportunities of future generations (Brundtland, 1987).

In societies with high awareness of these risks, environmental sustainability has suddenly become an immense part of our life choices: we buy greener products and services, including paying even more for them if they are more climate-friendly (such as cars and refrigerators, and we are changing our life habits (commuting less or working remotely) or collecting our waste to ensure that it is recycled.

Digital services, however, are usually not taken into account when it comes to our green actions. This should change in the future. Here is why.

The digital sector is growing at an unprecedented rate, shaping our economies and societies. Global data consumption is expected to triple in the next 5 years by growing on average 25% each year (Ericsson, 2022 June). This not only forecasts the huge growth of digital services but predicts the enormous connectivity infrastructure underlying them. The 6G vision, for example, envisages a large-scale autonomous network system, covering space, air, land and water (Matinmikko-Blue, 2021). This has at least two implications for environmental sustainability.

The Good: the Enabling Effect

Unlike many other industries, digitalization enables the green transformation of entire industries, economies and societies (the so-called “enabling effect”). Connecting all people and things could already reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 15-20%, a volume that is itself ten times higher than the sector’s own emissions (BEREC, 2021, 3). Other studies suggest that the digital solutions already available could reduce global carbon emissions by 15% (Malmodin & Bergmark, 2015, 44). By adopting 5G technology, for example, the most polluting industries could reduce their carbon footprint by up to 50% by 2030 (MIT, 2021, 14). 

In light of this, one could argue that we should definitely encourage the extensive deployment and use of digital services, solutions and systems that can streamline resource-heavy and energy-heavy products and processes to support the much-needed green transition.

The Bad: the Rebound Effect

Although digital is one of the most energy-efficient industries (Malmodin & Lundén, 2016, 217), its carbon footprint is becoming burdensome and there is a genuine risk that the digital transformation will trigger a “rebound effect”. This means that despite the energy and material savings, already present in the industry, the rapid growth in data traffic and new applications (blockchain, IoT, metaverse) will only further increase the overall energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the sector (Canfora et al., 2020, 259; Skouby & Windekilde, 2010, 13). 

While in the early 2000s, the digital sector was responsible for 1% of global GHG emissions (Beton et al., 2008, 13; Sutherland, 2009, 63), today, this could be as high as 4% (BEREC, 2022). Around 12-24% of these emissions are attributable to networks, 15% to data centers and around 60-80% to devices (BEREC, 2022, 5). The carbon emissions from smartphone use alone, for example, account for 15% of total emissions, including the 32 kg of raw materials that are needed to produce a 2-gram microchip (BEREC, 2021, 3). With the same trajectory, the industry’s GHG emissions could rise to 14% of the global value by 2040 (Belkhir & Elmeligi, 2018). 

If we do not act now, the digital transformation may not just fail to save our planet, but even speed up its degradation.

The Ugly: the Lack of a Clear Policy

Given its potential key role, the digital sector is destined to receive greater attention from policymakers when it comes to environmental sustainability. The problem is the how: as this is a new challenge, we need to start almost from scratch. This raises several problems.

First, we do not know how to measure the impact. Energy and operational efficiency are at the core of the digital and connectivity industry, therefore most players have dealt with environmental sustainability for a long time. Despite this reality, we lack a single, agreed methodology for monitoring environmental impacts at the industry level. There is also no definitive knowledge about the impact of specific digital services and individual consumption patterns on the environment (although good practices can be found, such as the inclusion of the carbon footprint of current consumption on the bill) (Sutherland, 2009, 72; Ericsson Consumer & IndustryLab, 2020; French Parliament, 2021). As an extra layer of complexity, the scope of the digital sector also varies greatly in the different methodologies (digital sector, ICT or electronic communications sector).

Second, in a highly fragmented arena, we do not have a clear vision or policy guiding us on how to act. Environmental sustainability is, on the one hand, influenced by different levels of regulation (international organizations, industry initiatives, standards, EU, and national regulations) and there are many examples of parallel initiatives. On the other hand, since most sustainability problems require complex actions across industries, the digital industry is usually subject to both general (e.g., European Green Deal) and specific policy tools (e.g., ITU standards). Finally, up until now, sustainability has been almost absent from the direct regulatory environment of the digital and connectivity industries.

Both industry players and regulators may find it challenging to choose correct and coherent actions in the current policy environment, therefore if they act, they do it on their own, which may further increase the heterogeneity of policies and decrease predictability.

The Implications: the Need for a Green Digital Revolution

Currently, people justify not caring much about the environmental impact of the digital services they use because of the huge positive impact they have on their lives. 

For the digital revolution to truly achieve its purpose without negative climate impact, however, it has to be green by design and by nature. 

Digital is becoming the industry of all industries, growing into all aspects of our lives, or even beyond, if we count the metaverse. The underlying infrastructure needs to be at the forefront of the green transition to ensure that we do not reach a tipping point: when the overall energy consumption and GHG emissions of the sector start to exceed the benefits (the rebound effect).

To avoid the rebound effect, we need a policy shift to make environmental sustainability an important factor in the development and use of digital and connectivity services and infrastructure.

The good news is that policy is expected to change in the coming years, at least in the European Union. The European Commission has launched a number of dedicated industry initiatives, such as the Digital Decade package of proposals (European Commission, 2021), which include environmental sustainability as a priority regulatory objective. Regulators have also begun to develop monitoring methods and map possible regulatory actions (see ARCEP, Traficom, BEREC and related projects of the European Green Digital Coalition and the call for a Green and Digital Transition in the EU) (BEREC, 2022). So there is hope.

We still need a specific system that allows us to understand the climate footprint of the digital services we use and make informed choices based on such data (similar to the energy label system of the electronics or GHG emission levels of cars). It will still take years, however, before we have a single harmonized metric system and dedicated policy actions based on it in the European Union, if at all.

Therefore, we also need to change our mindset as consumers to speed up the green digital transformation, preferably by choosing sustainable actions that do not limit the economic, social, and environmental opportunities of future generations. 

At an individual level, there is so much we can do to decrease our digital climate footprint. Data suggests that sending one email less per day only in the UK could save over 16,433 tons of carbon a year – the same as 811,522 flights from London to Madrid or taking 33,343 diesel cars off the road (OVO Energy, 2019). We may also consider, however, repairing our digital devices instead of buying a new one (unless the new one is significantly more energy efficient), recycling devices through trusted programs or operators, and choosing operators that operate their networks by using green energy. And finally, everyone can raise awareness of the issue just by spreading the word (or this article).

The general principle of sustainability applies here as well: if everyone does just a little for the future, we can make a significant impact. We hope to see more coordinated steps in the policy and industry actions of the digital sector, as well as at least some minor changes in the actions of consumers. 

If we succeed, an environmentally sustainable digital future might become reality in 20 years from now. As a result of a common European policy, the environmental impact of the digital sector will be visible to policymakers, industry players and consumers. Based on this data, regulation will incentivize (or as a last resort require) companies to ensure green operations. Policy is expected to spark increased green consciousness of users, including introducing green labeling of certain services or companies. Climate-neutral networks and operations will become a standard in the digital sector, including the (re)use of materials and other resources. This might lead to a higher degree of consolidation of the underlying infrastructure with fierce competition at the service level, in which the environmental sustainability score of the service (or the company) will play a greater role than today. With more innovation required to stand out from the crowd, companies will introduce solutions that offer climate-positive operations. Therefore, we might be able to avoid the rebound effect. Hopefully, we will not be too late.

If we do not act now, the digital transformation may not just fail to save our planet, but even make it fail faster.


Máté Mester

Máté currently manages global initiatives and programs at a leading US quantitative asset management firm. Prior to this role, he drove policymaking and strategy in the connectivity, technology, and internet industries in various positions. He was directly involved in EU policymaking, assisted telecom companies in providing or launching new services in over 20+ CEE countries. Additionally, he contributed to government strategies in Hungary and advised providers on infrastructure development and spectrum tenders, thereby enabling Gigabit Internet, 5G, or IoT. For his 10+ years of professional work in the information society and electronic communications, he previously received a Ministerial Award from the Hungarian government. Máté holds an LL.M. degree in Law & Technology from Tilburg University and is now working on his PhD thesis on sustainability policymaking in the telecoms industry at the University of Public Service in Hungary.

Last edited in April 2024.


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