The growing number of tech companies that offer solutions to help combat climate change is staggering. Technology helps create and distribute renewable energy, educates people about adopting sustainable lifestyles and reducing their environmental impact, helps measure emissions, and can even help save endangered species. The large-scale behavioral changes that new technologies deliver using robotics, the internet of things (IoT), automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) offer hope for ecological change at scale.
While the tech ecosystem is a powerful force that drives progress, its effects on the environment can’t be ignored. For example, the mined components that go into smartphones (not to mention their seemingly planned obsolescence after 18 months) and the amount of energy and carbon emissions associated with the cloud computing services and apps we all now rely on.
Case-in-point: An MIT report shows that training an AI model can have the equivalent of up to five times the lifetime emissions of a gas-powered car. With the mainstream entrance of AI technologies, blockchain, and other innovations spurred by 5G, the number of tech-associated emissions is poised to increase.
While big tech has started to think about a more sustainable future by taking responsibility for its carbon footprint and drain on natural resources, let’s shed more light on five big issues that will continue to plague the industry if left unchecked.
The Global E-waste Monitor reported that the world dumped over 53 million tons of e-waste in 2019—just 17% of that was recycled. While recycling is an ideal solution to e-waste problems, recollection and recycling rates are alarmingly low, even in countries with the best e-waste management systems. China recorded the highest figure, 10.1 million tons, while the U.S. followed with 6.9 million tons, and India ranked third with 3.2 million tons. The three economies created close to 40% of global e-waste in 2019.
Given the shortfall between the amount of e-waste that’s generated and the amount recycled, businesses have to rethink their supposedly life-changing products and manage how they create and handle e-waste, especially if they plan to meet their net-zero targets.
2. Energy consumption
Thousands of data centers worldwide support big and little tech alike. They allow our digital lives to play out seamlessly. But all these modern conveniences pose an environmental threat. An enormous amount of energy is needed—around 1% of global energy—to support internet infrastructure and day-to-day operations. By 2040, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector will likely account for 14% of global carbon emissions. Much of that energy is wasted in the form of the heat emitted by hardware components, which necessitate cooling systems that pull additional electricity.
3. Employee rights
The world enjoys tech’s benefits with little concern about the processes and people involved. However, some tech companies’ working conditions—and, importantly, the working conditions of their suppliers—are far from sustainable. For instance, the hiring policies and working conditions at Catcher Technology, a Chinese firm that makes components for Apple products, have come under fire.
The 2013 International Labor Organization (ILO) on environmental sustainability and decent work has set the tone for what’s acceptable. The ILO emphasizes that environmental sustainability goals are not achievable without the active participation of workers.
Tech hardware—ranging from computers and monitors to phones, wearables, and IoT devices—requires various materials like plastic, precious metals, and silicon to manufacture. During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen environmental changes and resource scarcity create severe material shortages. As these concerns grow, countries and governments may need to take control of crucial resources to prevent future geopolitical feuds. Some regions like North Africa and the Middle East have already been hard-hit by resource scarcity and material conflicts.
5. Carbon accounting and disclosure
European governments have started to implement policies geared toward environmental sustainability—the EU taxonomy and Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) require financial service providers to disclose ESG considerations publicly. And we’ve started to see incentives to encourage eco-friendly behaviors and regulations and fines for non-compliant businesses. The U.S. is starting to catch up, too—the SEC is expected to mandate climate disclosures for listed companies later in 2022.
All this is to say; the tech industry could soon be hard-hit by taxation and fines for carbon footprints and unsustainable energy consumption. An economy-shaking example on a grand scale: China imposed a total ban on Bitcoin and Bitcoin mining, partially over concerns around high electricity consumption tied to the cryptocurrency.