Symbiosis is defined as the interaction between different animal species to mutually benefit in their growth and development. A term that in the business world has been replaced by the anglicism ‘win-win’ but that, ultimately, does not stop meaning the same: getting two parts of an equation to improve their results, however, measured, thanks to the collaboration between them.
In our days, One of the most repeated symbioses is the one that concerns technology and the environment. For decades we have been promised -and continue to be promised- that digitization would bring improvements in the energy efficiency of large industries, reduce consumption in our daily lives as citizens and help achieve the no less trite UN Sustainable Development Goals.
These proclamations have been repeated ad nauseam, and they are right: ICTs are an essential ally when it comes to equipping ourselves with better tools to measure, predict and control polluting emissions or damage to the environment produced by human activity. It is also true that technology is still an instrument that serves any purpose, be it positive or negative, noble or infamous. But we will trust in kindness and responsibility as a society so that, at least intentionally, the first ones are sought.
But what we cannot ignore is that technology is not something devoid of environmental implications. And it is that, although digital solutions can help us in many fields of the fight for sustainability, its very conception requires extensive energy consumption and high availability of resources that can overshadow the final result of this particular path.
A few days ago, the colleague Esther Paniagua put some figures on the table in an article for D+I: eTraining an advanced artificial intelligence algorithm that emits the equivalent of five cars over their lifetime. Playing videos online emits more CO2 per year than in Spain. Bitcoin annually consumes more energy than Argentina, and it is estimated that its emissions in 2021 may be associated with around 19,000 future deaths.
It is the dark side of this symbiosis, the one that forces us to question the unappealable promise that technology will be the recipe that saves us from all climate ills and all-natural catastrophes. And while we’ve tried as an industry to avoid this conversation much longer than we should, there is no longer any space or reason to avoid this debate.
Many of the big tech companies have ambitious plans to reduce their environmental footprint, mainly betting on the use of renewable energy in their data centers. The Spanish government itself has a strategy of green algorithms with which it intends to become the international mainstay of this long-awaited symbiosis. But these initiatives are still far from being something material, something concrete and embodied in present events.
Sandra Viñas published a report about it that I recommend. Reflection? The sustainability strategies of the big technology companies can be considered greenwashing because of their “questionable methods”. To make such an assertion, he cited a report from the NGO NewClimate Institute, according to which giants such as Microsoft, Google, or Apple barely have plans to reduce their pollution by 40%despite the fact that most promise to be neutral in the coming years.
How then do you defend that you are environmentally committed companies and that you are on your way to that desired neutrality? The trap has its own name: emissions compensation. Instead of investing in more renewable energy or looking for less polluting operational alternatives, the ‘big tech’ have become important players in the CO2 bond market, with which they can ‘officially’ remove their emissions from the annual reports, even though they continue to be produced. Because paper supports everything, but the sky, the seas, and the ground do not.
Today, World Earth Day should be a day to reflect on these issues and analyze not only the great speeches and good intentions but also the realities we face. AND decisively promoting the magical, promising, and exciting symbiosis of technology and sustainability. But that will only happen if, in the first instance, we control the dark side of digitization.