Numerous reports have been published in recent years alerting to the carbon footprint of the sector and its evolution. According to the report of the mission of information on the environmental footprint of the digital sector report, the sector's carbon footprint could increase significantly if nothing is done to limit it (+60% by 2040, i.e. 6.7% of the national carbon footprint).While all the studies agree on the trends and orders of magnitude at work, particularly with regard to the carbon footprint, they nevertheless include significant variations. These variations are essentially due to the evaluation methodologies and the data used.The Government has entrusted ADEME (Agency for Ecological Transition) and Arcep (Regulatory Authority for Electronic Communications, Posts and Press Distribution) with a joint study on assessing the environmental impact of digital technology in France.
An environmental impact concentrated on the terminals
Most of the environmental impact of digital technology comes from terminals, regardless of which of the four indicators identified is considered. They account for at least 65% of the impact and up to 90% for the depletion of natural abiotic resources (metals and minerals).While the impact of phones is substantial, it is far from being the majority. Measures aimed at extending the duration of use of terminals must therefore go well beyond them.IoT (Internet of Things) devices currently represent a relatively small share (less than 7%) of the terminal footprint. However, their market development potential could change the associated environmental effects.Within the "screens and audiovisual equipment" category, TV boxes account for a fairly marginal share of the environmental impact, while televisions account for a large majority (probably also due to the fact that French households have a higher level of equipment than the other screens considered), followed by computer screens. "It therefore seems necessary to address the environmental impact of all terminals, and in particular the largest of them (televisions, computers, etc.).
The preponderance of servers in the environmental footprint of data centers
Data centers represent the second largest source of environmental impacts.When analyzing in more detail the equipment that makes up a data center, it is the servers in particular and the storage to a lesser extent that generate the most impact on the depletion of natural abiotic resources (metals and minerals) and the carbon footprint. " The impact of data centers on the depletion of natural abiotic resources (fossil fuels) and ionizing radiation is mainly due to the energy consumption of the servers and the technical packages. It is the servers that in any case generate the most impact through their manufacture and use.The study highlights the role of enterprise and colocation servers (data centers in which multiple customers host and operate their own IT equipment) as the source of most of the impacts (over 80% for each environmental indicator). "However, the study does not allow us to determine to what extent these results are the result of a "volume" effect related to the number of enterprise servers and colocation or whether a specific issue needs to be addressed. In addition, it should be noted that only data centers present on the national territory are modeled."
Networks, the third most important environmental impact vector
Of the three building blocks (terminals, data centers, networks), these represent the last vector of environmental impacts for the four indicators considered: around 5% of the environmental impacts of digital technology for the carbon footprint and a little over 10% for the depletion of natural abiotic resources and ionizing radiation.Fixed networks concentrate the majority of impacts (between 75 and 90% of impacts depending on the indicator). " In relation to the amount of Gb consumed on each network, the environmental impact of fixed networks becomes lower than that of mobile networks. Per GB consumed, mobile networks have nearly three times more impact than fixed networks for all environmental indicators studied.Indeed, the authors of the report add, " networks have a very largely fixed consumption independent of traffic (rather a function of the degree of geographical coverage). Increasing traffic therefore lowers the environmental impact per GB of data and may increase the total environmental impact associated with networks, but not proportionally.
"All the players in the ecosystem must do their part for a sustainable digital world
"This study makes it possible to refine the evaluation of the environmental impact of digital technology," the authors of the report observe in conclusion. Beyond the evaluation itself," the authors conclude, "the study confirms the complexity of the exercise and identifies the most structuring obstacles to be removed in order to improve the measurement. (...) It has thus identified four relevant environmental indicators to describe the environmental impact of digital technology in France, reinforcing the need for a multi-criteria LCA approach:
the depletion of natural abiotic resources (metals and minerals),
the depletion of natural abiotic resources (fossils),
The study confirms that terminals are the source of most of the impacts (from 65 to 90%), for all indicators, followed by data centers (from 4 to 20%) and then networks (from 4 to 13%), "it is therefore imperative to address the environmental impact of all terminals and particularly the largest of them (televisions, computers, etc.)".However, the question must be addressed globally:"Indeed, this distribution of impact must not obscure the ecosystemic dimension of digital technology: the interdependence between terminals, networks and data centers created by usage must be taken into account in the development of public policies addressing the environmental impact of digital technology as a whole. All the players in the ecosystem must do their part to make digital technology sustainable. The work of ADEME and Arcep should help to remove some of the obstacles identified. In particular, ADEME's work to clarify existing methodologies for product categories continues. For its part, Arcep is continuing its work to define a digital environmental barometer."ADEME and Arcep will continue their collaboration in the last phase of this study, relating to the development of prospective scenarios, and more generally in the framework of the observatory of digital impacts " (created by the law aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of digital technology in France).