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Why sustainability isn’t just about the environment

AUDE SCHOENTGEN, CHRIS TAYLOR, KARIM BENSASSI-NOUR and JOHNATHAN CHARLES argue that a sustainable digital future means addressing digital rights and inclusion alongside environmental concerns

The digital revolution of the 21st century has ushered in transformative changes that transcend traditional boundaries and reshape the fabric of human interaction, economic systems and societal structures. Central to this transformation is the proliferation of digital communications technologies, which have not only accelerated the dissemination of information but have also redefined the ways in which individuals, communities and nations engage with one another. The United Nations has identified the telecommunications, media and technology sector as a critical enabler for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.1

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, so does the urgency to evaluate the sustainability of these advancements. The usual approach to sustainability in communications technologies focuses on the environmental aspect. Although the environment is a central concern, sustainability should also encompass broader considerations. This article proposes a holistic definition of sustainable digital communications technologies that involves three major challenges faced by our increasingly digital societies:2

  • Protecting the environment: digital communications technologies contribute to global energy consumption and carbon emissions, whilst at the same time play an important role in protecting the environment.
  • Promoting digital inclusion: digital inclusion addresses the ability and opportunity of individuals and communities to access and use electronic communications technologies. This differs between countries as well as within countries, between categories of age and gender and by income. It is an important matter for policymakers, citizens, and businesses, being a key determinant of education, health, wealth, and democracy.
  • Upholding digital rights: digitalisation is transforming the way human rights (e.g. freedom of expression, access to information) are exercised and protected.

In some cases, addressing one of these three themes is aligned to the others: progressing one will also progress one or both others. Sometimes they can conflict. For example, promoting digital inclusion by building or improving digital infrastructure can raise environmental costs through carbon emissions and the consumption of scarce resources.

It is therefore important for policymakers and other stakeholders who are working on progressing objectives across these areas to understand, manage and monitor these linkages. By doing so, it should be possible to navigate the intricate balance between technological progress and human welfare.

Considering this approach, we propose a definition of sustainable digital communications as the practice of designing, developing, and using digital communications technologies and systems in a way that minimises negative impacts on the environment, upholds ethical principles and digital rights, and promotes social inclusion.

The interplay of environmental sustainability, digital inclusion and digital rights

Environmental sustainability: digital inclusion

Environmental sustainability and digital inclusion are interconnected, with digital technologies offering significant potential to enhance environmental outcomes. The shift towards digital communication, such as the use of email, messaging apps, video calls, and online conferences, has reduced the need for paper and printing and decreased carbon emissions by minimising the necessity for travel. These technologies also play a crucial role in disseminating information, thus educating and empowering individuals to participate in environmental conservation efforts. The internet serves as a pivotal platform for raising awareness and fostering a collective responsibility towards environmental preservation. Digital technologies, including satellites, drones, and sensors, are instrumental in monitoring environmental conditions, providing valuable data on air and water quality.

However, efforts to expand digital inclusion and connectivity can have adverse environmental impacts. The expansion of telecommunications infrastructure, including the construction of networks and data centres, can lead to habitat disruption, deforestation and increased energy consumption. Moreover, the growing engagement in the digital economy boosts the demand for electronic devices, leading to higher production and disposal of electronic waste. This not only increases energy consumption, often from non-renewable sources, but also necessitates the mining of rare earth elements, causing soil and water pollution, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Therefore, while digital technologies offer solutions for environmental sustainability, their expansion and adoption must be managed carefully to mitigate negative environmental externalities.

Figure 1.  Linkages between environmental sustainability and digital inclusion

Environmental sustainability: digital rights

The linkages between environmental sustainability and digital rights are less obvious, but they are there, through the minimisation of the impact of data consumption and the availability of ethical and trustworthy information on the environment.

Responsible treatment of data. Responsible data practices are essential for mitigating the environmental impact of the digital sector’s growth which, despite technological advancements in data storage and processing efficiency, incurs significant environmental costs due to the resource-intensive nature of network and data centre operations. The environmental consequences of data consumption are complex, highlighted by the Jevons paradox, where perceived greener digital services may lead to increased consumption. Challenges in assessing the impact arise from the lack of standardised reporting on resource use, resulting in varied estimates. Efforts to quantify and standardise the environmental impact of data are crucial but must also recognise that the benefits of digital services, such as reduced travel, can sometimes outweigh the environmental costs. Stakeholders in digital rights are encouraged to balance data consumption with environmental sustainability, acknowledging the intricate relationship between technological advancement and environmental responsibility.

Ethical and trustworthy environmental information. The necessity for digital platforms to provide ethical and reliable information is a key aspect of digital rights and trust, especially as online sources increasingly dominate as primary news and information channels. Misinformation, particularly regarding environmental issues, poses significant risks to achieving positive environmental outcomes. Recognising this, governments worldwide aim to shield consumers from harmful and misleading content with initiatives such as the UK Online Safety Act and the EU Digital Services Act. The challenge of distinguishing between accurate information and misinformation about climate change is exacerbated by digital channels, which often serve as vectors for climate misinformation. The European Parliament’s European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade 2023 emphasises the importance of designing digital products and services in environmentally sustainable ways and ensuring public access to clear information on their environmental impacts. This initiative underscores the critical relationship between digital rights, trust and environmental sustainability, advocating for informed and responsible choices in the digital age.

Figure ‎2. Linkages between environmental sustainability and digital rights

Digital inclusion: digital rights and trust

Digital inclusion as a driver for digital rights. Digital inclusion allows civil society, businesses and governments to participate in the public debate by having access to information, sharing data and opinions, and engaging with other stakeholders. As a result, digital inclusion allows the exercise of certain digital rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of information. Digital inclusion can be hindered by different barriers, including lack of connectivity and the digital skills of the user.  These obstacles also exist when governments deny access  to the internet in a country, a region or a city, or access to certain websites or social networks, putting forward national security justifications.3 According to a 2023 UN report, the impact of internet access cuts is dramatic, ‘depriving millions of people from participating in democratic debates, and from accessing essential services linked to education, health, and work’.4

Digital rights as a driver for digital inclusion. The Council of Europe includes in digital rights, among others, the right to access the internet without any discrimination and the right to online access to education.5 Authorities ensuring these rights help contribute to digital inclusion. Furthermore, ensuring the right to privacy and data protection contributes to increased confidence in digital tools and in regulatory frameworks. ‘Controls or programmes that help to address consumers’ concerns around online safety will drive digital inclusion, especially among vulnerable segments of the population.’6  Governments and policymakers are working to protect civil liberties online and online payment security, and ensure we are not exposed to criminal or inappropriate content. Increasing online safety and trust in digital services enables better digital inclusion.

Figure ‎3. Linkages between digital inclusion and digital rights

The need for a holistic approach

The development of digital communications in the past thirty years has disrupted economic, social and political relationships between citizens, businesses and countries, and will continue to evolve at a fast pace. It is important then to recognise that policy analysis and development must be dynamic to enable policy frameworks that are adaptable and flexible as the landscape changes. This article aims to heighten awareness and sensitise policymakers and media about the causation effects and interplays – whether positive or negative – between environmental impact, digital rights and trust, and digital inclusion.

Recognising the link between digital inclusion, digital rights and sustainability

Addressing the issues in these three areas is a key challenge for policymakers across the globe and there are several targeted policies, regulations and public schemes that focus on one area or another. While these targeted policies and initiatives are important, it is nevertheless necessary to adopt a holistic approach that integrates environmental sustainability, digital inclusion and digital rights into a unified framework. Ignoring the dynamic relationships between these areas may inadvertently exacerbate existing disparities and hinder progress in one area while attempting to address another. In other terms, approaching these issues in silos could lead to unintended consequences and undesirable outcomes in one or two of these areas. A holistic approach is paramount in ensuring that existing trade-offs and potential externalities are taken into consideration before implementing policies and regulations.

Policy initiatives aimed at addressing issues in these three areas together have yet to emerge but there are several existing frameworks that focus on two of them. For example, the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act adopted by the European Union are designed to ensure the safety of users online, establish a governance system for the protection of fundamental rights and maintain a fair and open online platform environment. In the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, the EU presents its commitment to ensure a secure, inclusive and sustainable digital society hence recognising the importance of developing sustainable digital communications technologies as defined in this paper. While this policy represents a considerable shift in the right direction, it does not comprehensively recognise the interplay between sustainability, digital inclusion and digital rights and the importance of addressing these issues in a holistic manner.

Improving cross-border cooperation

The issues we face in the digital age are not confined by geographical boundaries. A holistic policy approach should also acknowledge the global nature of these issues, necessitating collaboration and coordination on an international scale. Policies that transcend borders are essential if the interconnected challenges of environmental sustainability, digital inclusion, and digital rights are to be addressed effectively. International agreements and conventions can play a crucial role in facilitating such cooperation but policymakers at the national and regional levels must also collaborate to harmonise regulations and standards to ensure a cohesive and effective approach. International organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) can play a key role in fostering such cooperation by stating a clear vision that is aligned with the protection of the environment, the promotion of digital inclusion and maintaining and furthering digital rights.7 This also applies to international donors, such as the World Bank, that are heavily involved in the funding of digital infrastructure, capacity building and policy reforms worldwide. They have the potential to help shape a new paradigm of digital communications technologies that minimises negative impacts on the environment, promotes social inclusion and upholds ethical principles and digital rights.

Reinforcing cross-sectoral cooperation

Adopting a holistic approach to these issues is undoubtedly challenging, especially because of the large range of stakeholders affected by them. These include not only policymakers but also telecoms operators, equipment vendors, content providers and data centre operators as well as researchers, civil society and private companies that use digital communications technologies.

Each of these players has its own interests and approach to addressing these issues and it is important to raise awareness about the interplay of sustainability, digital inclusion and digital rights across all relevant stakeholders. There should be platforms to discuss these issues and how some players’ initiatives can affect the activities of others. Finally, policymakers should make sure that relevant stakeholders are consulted during the policymaking process and provide flexible frameworks and guidelines that consider the diversity of stakeholders and that integrate the aspects related to sustainability, inclusion and digital rights.

Strengthening the regulators’ role

Telecommunications regulators worldwide have a crucial role in ensuring the sector’s efficient operation, consumer protection and fair competition. This in turn influences the accessibility, affordability and quality of digital communications services. Traditionally their focus has been on promoting digital inclusion and protecting digital rights, often overlooking environmental sustainability due to its perceived irrelevance to their scope. However, this perspective is changing, with regulators in some countries beginning to address environmental issues within the ICT sector. For instance, the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission has suggested new duties for regulatory bodies such as Ofcom, Ofgem, and Ofwat to support the achievement of net zero by 2050. In France, legislative proposals aim to empower Arcep with the authority to monitor the environmental impact of digital market players, aligning with the government’s environmental strategy to measure and understand in order to act more effectively.8 At the European level, the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) is showing increased involvement in sustainability issues within the ICT sector, marking a positive direction towards empowering regulators globally to tackle these challenges. Broadening the regulatory authorities’ scope to include climate change and environmental impact could significantly contribute to steering the digital communications sector towards a more sustainable future.

The full report, ‘Enabling a Sustainable Digital Future: Bridging environmental concerns, digital rights and digital inclusion’ can be downloaded here.

Aude Schoentgen

Aude Schoentgen is a director at Plum Consulting specialising in the practical application of economic theory. She holds a PhD in economics from Télécom Paris.

Chris Taylor

Chris Taylor is a partner at Plum Consulting. He is a specialist in communications and media regulation and was formerly director of consumer policy at Ofcom.

Karim Bensassi-Nour

Karim Bensassi-Nour is a consultant at Plum Consulting. He works on strategy, regulation and policy issues in the TMT sector.

Johnathan Charles

Johnathan Charles is an analyst at Plum Consulting, focusing on the telecoms, media and technology sector.

1 The UN Commission on Science and Technology (2017). UN highlights critical role of science, technology and innovation in achieving the SDGs, 15 May.

2 Digital communications technologies are defined as all the tools, systems and technologies that enable digital interaction, such as emailing, instant messaging, video conferencing, social media, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services and other forms of communication services delivered through internet connectivity. Communications technologies rely on the following components: network infrastructure, data centres and user devices.

3 See the Access Now Keep It On campaign.

4 Agence française de développement (2023). Digital freedoms in French-speaking African countries, May.

5 See the Council of Europe Guide to Human Rights for Internet Users.

6 GSMA (2022). ESG Metrics for Mobile, June.

7 The current ITU strategy, Connect 2030 – An agenda to connect all to a better world, tackles sustainability and digital inclusion but doesn’t have a strong focus on digital rights.

8 The case of Arcep currently remains an exception; there is no requirement, or indeed allowance, for most national regulatory authorities around the world to take account of the environmental impact in their regulatory procedures.


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