Sixth Dialogue:

An environmental data revolution?

In October 2020, at the launch of the UN Data Strategy for Action by Everyone, Everywhere, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that ‘trusted data helps us all understand the changing world’. The changes brought about by digital technologies are indeed profound and span from economy to the environment. The latter has gained increasing traction worldwide with the release of the European Green Deal, but also with the recent publications of the German and French national strategies on environmental issues raised by digital technologies. As we transition towards a more circular economy, data can play a role in all the phases of a product’s lifecycle, as indicated by the Digital Product Passport initiative.

Environmental data is indispensable to mitigating climate change. While the impression may be that this is a recent development, international organisations, namely the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have worked together since the early 1970s to gather data and monitor global air pollution. Other stakeholders have also been making strides towards a more sustainable way of doing business.

A more recent example comes from the trade sector, showing that data plays a key role in transparent and eco-friendly trade. For instance, the Trase platform connects independent data sources, revealing trade flows for commodities such as beef, soy, and palm oil which are accountable for an estimated two-thirds of tropical deforestation. Greater access to data and improved data flows can also warrant greater supply chain transparency, traceability, and ultimately, a more resilient trade of goods and services.

Efforts to use data to curb climate change have led to numerous other international green data initiatives, including the EU’s Copernicus, Aqueduct, Global Forest Change, to name but a few.

That said, data also contributes to a fair share of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 7,000 data centres, located across the globe, are said to consume some 2% of global electricity. Predictions show that consumption is expected to increase to 8% by 2030. For comparison, in 2018, global residential electricity usage amounted to 26.9%. One potential solution to this problem is to power data centres with renewable energy, an approach that has already been embraced by tech giants. To this end, Microsoft, for instance, has announced that it would be carbon negative by 2030. Moreover, data centre operators and trade associations across the EU agreed to make data centres climate neutral by 2030 so as to secure a sustainable future for the region.