Data, Digital Technology, and the Environment
Last updated: 25 Nov 2021
More than at any other time of history, humanity is producing an astonishing quantity of data, which is essential to understand the challenges our societies face and find solutions. Yet, crucial gaps remain and the availability of high-quality and transparent data is essential to address the triple planetary crisis and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Digital technologies can provide some new solutions to these complex problems, yet there also come with an environmental cost of their own. In this context, strengthening the global governance on data and digital technologies is essential step toward to 2030 Agenda. This update lays out some of the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution, while highlighting the role of Geneva in the global digital agenda.
Data and the SDGs
Transparent and high-quality data is crucial to achieve the 2030 Agenda. Not only is data essential to access progress with regards to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but it is also a pre-requirement to develop sounds and effective solutions to address planetary challenges. The opportunity to use data to improve real-time decision-making on natural resources could also transform global environmental governance frameworks and multilateral environmental agreements. There is tremendous hope that decisions can be made, monitored and enforced using real-time spatial and statistical data, thereby closing the gap between alarm, action and impact.
However, as highlighted in the report “Measuring Progress Towards Achieving the Environmental Dimension of the SDGs“, there is not sufficient data for 68% of the SDG indicators related to the environment to assess progress. Some areas with limited data include biodiversity, ecosystem health, the concentration of pollution and waste in the environment, and other environmental threats. With limited data to assess the trend at the global level, there is a high risk of receiving fewer policy interventions and investments to improve the state of the environment.
Various organizations are exploring non-traditional data collection methods as traditional methods alone may not be enough to fill these data gaps. These non-traditional data collection methods, such as citizen science initiatives, earth observation, and integration of geospatial information, present advantages including lower cost of data collection, and better use of scientific expertise and indigenous knowledge amongst others.
Learn more about the importance of data for achieving the SDGs through the resources below:
- Big Data for Sustainable Development | UN
- Why data revolution is crucial for the success of SDGs | Geospatial World
- Measuring Progress: Environment and the SDGs | UNEP | 22 May 2021 (updated from other / check if more relevant facts)
- Closing data gaps is essential to achieving the environmental dimension of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development | UNEP | 14 October 2019
- To keep track of the SDGs, we need a data revolution | UNCTAD | 17 January 2019
- Use of weather and climate information essential for SDG implementation | David Griggs et al. | Nature | 2 December 2020
- Why data is key to business action on the SDGs | World Economic Forum | 31 August 2016
Environmental Impact of Digital Technologies
Despite its seemingly separate existence from the physical world, digital activity has created its own unlikely carbon footprint. In fact, according to a 2019 study by the Shift Project, the world’s collective digital carbon footprint accounted for nearly 3.7 percent of all greenhouse emissions, which is comparable to aviation industry emission levels. Moreover, digital technology’s energy consumption increased by almost 70% between 2013 and 2020.
Though digital technology is often overlooked as a primary carbon producer, its impact on global sustainability is widespread — as are its origin points. Digital activity has become a multifaceted entity, comprising everything from video streaming and online gaming, to cryptocurrency trading and digital banking. These mediums, while often beneficial and progressive in their own right, come with an environmental price. They contribute to a growing influx of data, fueling the data processing cycle and subsequent production of emissions.
For example, a study by the UK’s OVO Energy found that the UK could reduce its carbon output by over 16,433 tons, simply by each adult sending one less email per day. Meanwhile, according to the Shift Project, the average CO2 consumption of streamed online video is more than 300 million tons per year, the equivalent of Spain’s annual emissions. As social media use grows every day among all demographics, the environmental footprint of these activities needs to be seriously considered.
Discover more about the environmental footprint of digital technologies and best practice to reduce the impact of your digital:
- The growing footprint of digitalisation | UNEP | November 2021
- Our digital carbon footprint: What’s the environmental impact of the online world? | Reset
- Digital Technologies Are Part of the Climate Change Problem | ICTworks
- Reducing Your Digital Carbon Footprint in the Wake of COVID-19 | University of California, Berkley
- Digital technology: friend or foe against climate change? | France24 | 11 October 2021
- Pollution numérique : la grande illusion du virtuel ? | France Culture | 17 September 2021
- Sizing up the environmental cost of digital technologies | Geneva Solutions | 21 October 2020
Digital Technologies for Sustainability Solutions
While digital technologies can have a negative impact on the environment as outlined above, they can also contribute to solutions for more sustainable consumption and production patterns, as well as sound environmental management. The recent advances in technology offer ground-breaking opportunities to monitor and protect the environment, as well as overall planetary health. By harnessing them appropriately, the digital revolution can be steered to combat climate change and advance global sustainability, environmental stewardship, and human well-being.
Examples are multiple, ranging from apps to prevent food waste to the use of blockchain technology, and the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to a wide range of sustainability problems. At the most basic level, digital technologies also enable people to connect, communicate and collaborate in ways that were never possible before. Data and information is essential to build awareness of the state of our planet, to influence consumer behaviour, to inform markets and to reform governance systems.
Learn more about the potential of digital technologies to foster sustainability through the resources below:
- How digital technology and innovation can help protect the planet | UNEP | 23 November 2021
- Digitalisation powering environmental protection | Diplo | 14 October 2021
- Using machine learning to make government spending greener | World Data Forum | 14 October 2021
- AI confirms over 85% of the world is affected by human-induced climate change | Cosmos Magazine | 12 October 2021
- IBM says AI can help track carbon pollution across vast supply chains | Ars Technica | 12 October 2021
- How blockchain can power sustainable development | UNCTAD | 22 July 2021
- The Case for a Digital Ecosystem for the Environment | UNEA-4 | 5 March 2019
- The promise and peril of a digital ecosystem for the planet | Jillian Campbell and David Jensen, UNEP | September 2019
- Frontier technologies are key tools to combat climate change | ITU and UN | April 2020
- The role of artificial intelligence in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals | Ricardo Vinuesa (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) et al. | January 2020
Global Data Governance and Digital Cooperation
Harnessing the potential of digital technologies for better sustainability outcomes requires cooperation among governments, institutions, and other data producers and users. The importance of good governance in the digital arena is recognized in the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
Digital technology is shaping history. But there is also the sense that it is running away with us. Where will it take us? Will our dignity and rights be enhanced or diminished? Will our societies become more equal or less equal? Will we become more, or less, secure and safe? The answers to these questions depend on our ability to work together across disciplines and actors, across nations and political divides. We have a collective responsibility to give direction to these technologies so that we maximize benefits and curtail unintended consequences and malicious use.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres | 26 November 2019 | Read more →
There are significant gaps in global digital cooperation, and digital technology issues are too often low on political agendas. Even where there has been cooperation, it is frequently fragmented and lacks tangible outcomes or sound follow-up processes. As a starting point, the Internet Governance Forum must be strengthened, in order to make it more responsive and relevant to current digital issues.
Many countries and citizens are deprived of capacities and skills crucial to the digital era and to attaining the SDGs. The digital technologies that underpin core societal functions and infrastructure, including supporting access to food, water, housing, energy, health care and transportation, need to be safeguarded. A broad and overarching statement outlining common elements of an understanding of digital trust and security, endorsed by all Member States, could help to shape a shared vision for digital cooperation based on global values.
Changing the current trajectory of humanity with regards to sustainability requires transparency, inclusion and accountability. A shift in the global political economy of environmental data is needed to harness the efforts of public and private sectors to jointly generate high-quality data and insights as a global public good while avoiding technology and data monopolies. Many initiatives are conducted by international organizations and partners to promote transparent and collaborative data collection and sharing in support of the SDGs. Discover more through the resources below:
- Roadmap for Digital Cooperation | United Nations Secretary-General
- WMO makes climate data sharing mandatory in landmark step | Geneva Solutions | 21 October 2021
- A Global Data Convention to safeguard sustainable development | World Data Forum | 5 October 2021
- Digital UN ecosystem for sustainable world in new way | British Asia News | 5 October 2021
- Digital Cooperation Must Connect, Respect, Protect: UN Secretary-General | IISD | 11 August 2020
- Why has UNEP embarked on its digital transformation journey | UNEP
UN World Data Forum 2021
The United Nations World Data Forum 2021 (UNWDF) was held on 3-6 October 2021 in Bern, providing a space for discussion between data producers and users in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The conference saw the adoption of the “Bern Data Compact for the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals”, which calls on the international community and national governments to ensure that all communities work together in the data ecosystem to secure many aspects related to the SDGs.
Geneva’s Role in Digital Policy
Geneva is one of the main global hubs where digital policies are debated, evaluated, and adopted. As such, digital cooperation is one of the region’s key areas for international environmental governance activities and for reinforcing synergies among stakeholders in the area. Geneva Environment Network discussions held in preparation for major environmental negotiations and as outreach on their outcomes, aim at fostering action on the triple planetary crisis of biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution that the world is facing, through science-based governance, leveraging data and technology respectful of the environment, and ensuring its access to all, to achieve everyone’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. They involve the numerous stakeholders that are based in the region and specialized on these topics. Read more:
- Internet Governance in International Geneva | Michael Kende, Fondation pour Genève and Graduate Institute and Development Studies | September 2020
- Geneva carves its place as a home for internet governance | Geneva Solutions | 9 September 2020
- What if Geneva became the leader in global digital policy? | Geneva Solutions | 25 August 2020
- Navigating Geneva’s Digital Policy Landscape | DiploFoundation | 23 June 2020
Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)
GIP is an initiative of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) and the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM) of Switzerland operated by DiploFoundation. It provides a neutral and inclusive space for digital policy debates, recognized by the majority of global actors as a platform where different views can be voiced.
Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA)
GESDA was founded by the Swiss and Geneva governments as an independent foundation to leverage the International Geneva ecosystem to anticipate, accelerate and translate into concrete actions the use of emerging science-driven topics.
Group on Earth Observations (GEO)
GEO is a partnership of more than 100 national governments and in excess of 100 Participating Organizations that envisions a future where decisions and actions for the benefit of humankind are informed by coordinated, comprehensive and sustained Earth observations.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
The IPCC is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – ICTs. ITU supports better use of digital technologies for climate change mitigation and adaptation and energy efficiency. Its work also focuses on protecting human health and the environment from the risks associated with e-waste.
Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
The IGF serves to bring people together from various stakeholder groups as equals, in discussions on public policy issues relating to the Internet. While there is no negotiated outcome, the IGF informs and inspires those with policy-making power in both the public and private sectors. At their annual meeting delegates discuss, exchange information and share good practices with each other. The IGF facilitates a common understanding of how to maximize Internet opportunities and address risks and challenges that arise.
Composed of a team of 20 Environment Data Scientist Global Resource Information Database – Geneva (GRID-Geneva) is a partnership between the UNEP, (FOEN) and the University of Geneva (UniGe), whose main role is to transform data into information and knowledge to support the decision making process related to environmental issues. GRID-Geneva specializes in the design and maintenance of data platforms for supporting UNEP (e.g. with the World Environment Situation Room), Ramsar and many other organisations and environmental conventions based in Geneva.
World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
WMO is dedicated to international cooperation and coordination on the state and behaviour of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the land and oceans, the weather and climate it produces, and the resulting distribution of water resources. Powerful computers in WMO centres worldwide process the data collected from tens of thousands of land and sea observation instruments and Earth-observing satellites. These data are used in numerical models based on physical laws to produce weather, climate and water-related forecasts, predictions, and information products and services for use in daily lives, long-term decision-making and research.