Workshop 4: Building cross-stakeholder awareness and understanding of the direct and indirect environmental impacts of digital/Internet technologies and how to mitigate them

Rapporteur: Francesco Vecchi

The nexus between digital transition and environmental impact has been recognised by the Council of Europe as one of the core challenges not only for citizens, but also for international and regional organisations. Besides, environment and human rights are deeply connected, as well as child abuse and exploitation. Human rights cannot take place in an unhealthy biosphere, and they are therefore double linked to data gatherings and online communications.
First, we need to distinguish direct (e.g. energy consumption, mining of rare minerals and raw materials) and indirect environmental effects (e.g. results of the implementation of digital innovation in industries). To analyse these outcomes, – that broadly cause the deterioration of the biosphere and worsen of life conditions – a standard measure must be defined, like the 2001 life cycle assessment.

When it comes to AI, the direct/indirect effects framework is extremely useful. People generally think AI is software and ephemeral, but it is rooted in concrete infrastructures, like the computing stack that train these large models processing data at a large scale. Consequently, LLMs have environmental impacts (e.g. inference). The direct impact is due to the infrastructure behind these, while indirect impacts concern their application either for environmentally positive and negative aims.

Speaking of cloud services, they are huge factories, data centers, filled with computers and storage devices. They consume a great deal of electricity and water when located in warmer climate zones. If we look at the environmental reports from Meta, Microsoft, Google, their largest environmental contribution (90%) comes from the supply chain. However, this process is not transparent and it needs being more visible to the users.

Moreover, Quantum Internet is far from being sustainable, while the standardisation body for the protocols underlying all the Internet networking has not been achieved yet. To decrease the environmental impact of the Internet, it is first crucial to determine the green metrics for measuring it. Second, we must acknowledge that ranking implies inequalities, since not all internet resources are provided everywhere.

All in all, the fact that we do not fully understand the impact of the latest Digital technology highlights the relevant of keeping this topic on the agenda. Also, it is crucial to reflect on the decision-making process and its lack of knowledge regarding the environmental cost to each decision. Regulation is needed, specifically for water and energy consumption, but it is also important that they are as data-driven as possible.

It is not that easy to make sure that sustainable technology by design implies that rules and plans are followed and implemented. That would requires changes in culture and in economic and political systems, which would also impact on demand and supply.

However, speaking of regulations, a debate was raised about their appropriateness. First, AI are black boxes: we do not properly understand how they work, and their application in society is also new. These dark areas are the reasons why regulators should take a consultative and iterative approach.

Also, regulation on AI is not universally accepted: it is not that clear why energy consumption should be regulated, if we could, for example, use energy for something else, especially improving social standards. AI’s regulation is opposite to the very root of AI’s technology, and regulators are really context-specific. Some countries can be much more cautious, and the Council of Europe’s work is to accommodate possible really different approaches to AI.

Finally, there are several solutions to contain the environmental impact of Digital Development. For instance, we could improve measurement, standards, and collaboration on data collection, in parallel with the regulation process. Also, we should look at the whole life cycle impact: little energy from digital technologies is recycled, and much can be done both from the direct and indirect impact perspective. Furthermore, it is crucial to focus on where the energy comes from, as well as on physical hardware. All in all, we need to form a holistic view on the ICT environmental impact to stress its urgency, even considering degrowth as a solution.

Source: https://comment.eurodig.org/eurodig-2023-messages/workshops/workshop-4-building-cross-stakeholder-awareness-and-understanding-of-the-direct-and-indirect-environmental-impacts-of-digital-internet-technologies-and-how-to-mitigate-them/