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Managing Green Digitalization

Magazine #2 | Summer 2023

Managing Green Digitalization

Is digitalization destined to worsen climate change, the most challenging crisis of our times? Or can it contribute to solving the crisis? The answer depends on us.  Currently, information and communication technologies produce an estimated 2 to 4 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, for a total at least as high as Germany’s entire share. Global energy consumption from server farms, dataflows and private end devices is rising so dramatically that we must formulate standards and conditions so that the positive effects of digitalization on the climate and the environment outweigh the negative. We can decide whether digitalization will have a negative impact on the environment like burning coal or whether it will become an innovative field comparable to renewable energies. We must now take advantage of the opportunity to push forward environmental and climate protection with the help of digital solutions.

Climate-neutral data centers are justifiably a focus of the current debate about making digitalization more sustainable. But we cannot limit our attention solely to that issue. In the effort to improve sustainability, it would also make sense to limit the amount of unnecessarily generated dataflows. For example, hardly any sustainability criteria have been formulated for software development. Inefficient programming is usually compensated for with faster processors or more powerful hardware components. “Green coding,” though, would enable us to significantly improve energy efficiency. Measures to cut down on the use of data, resources and energy must become the new imperatives of software development. We can establish incentives, anchor sustainability in university curricula and develop training programs.

We need European standards for the consumption of energy and resources by software and hardware. Big platforms in particular consume vast quantities of electricity through the exorbitant collection of our personal data for the advertising industry. We in the Green Party are pushing in the European Parliament for standards to promote business models that require less data and for greater transparency for consumers. In the future, they should have the ability to compare browsers, search engines, digital marketplaces and social networks based on their electricity and energy consumption. Only then will consumers be able to proactively choose to use, for example, a more sustainable browser. The large digital platforms are currently profiting from internet services that users are not paying for with money: The currently dominant, data-thirsty advertising model is generating enormous sums for large digital companies. And that is precisely where competitors could get their foot in the door through the deployment of more sustainable practices, such as transparent energy savings through data efficiency.

I am also pushing in the European Parliament for the complete melding of the Green Deal and digitalization. I am calling for sustainability criteria for all laws currently being developed at the EU level. The German government must do all it can inside the European Council to ensure strict rules in the Data Act and the AI Act. Because sufficient data has not yet been compiled for the energy and resource consumption of AI systems, clear transparency rules must be included in the AI Act to promote efficient technologies. The risk evaluation framework included in the AI Act must be expanded to include the risks that AI systems may pose to the environment. In addition, the European Union must establish a framework for measuring the environmental impact of AI systems.

We must make it cheaper to repair a defective device than to buy a new one.

The Greens are also committed to ensuring that no more electronic waste from Europe is dumped in poorer regions of the world, exposing local populations to health and safety risks. Digitalization must no longer be rooted in the exploitation of people and the environment. We need improved conditions for the extraction of raw materials around the world by establishing standards for supply chains to Europe. At the same time, we must make it cheaper to repair a defective device than to buy a new one. We can achieve this by making repairs easier to perform, using standardized parts, making replacement parts available for a longer period, through the preparation of repair manuals and the extension of warranty coverage. With the implementation of such binding standards, we can reduce the quantity of electronic waste and save on costs related to disposal and recycling. Binding sustainability labels (which could, for example, provide information on a product’s repairability) or digital product passports would enable more sustainable purchasing decisions in favor of products that are easier to recycle.

How can we prevent a situation in which efficiency improvements made through digitalization are negated by additional consumption – such as when improved data transfer results in the increased use of digital services? To prevent such “rebound effects,” we need control instruments and absolute limits on resource consumption in the digital transformation. Fiscal policy must eliminate environmentally damaging subsidies and shift the tax burden away from labor and toward the consumption of resources.

The systematic reorientation of digitalization toward sustainability will open up new opportunities for European companies. Thus far, a handful of giant corporations have dominated the industry and cemented their position in the market with opaque data-use practices that undermine our democracy, exacerbate the climate crisis and stifle competition. So, it’s worth fighting for a digital Green Deal!


Member of the European Parliament since 2019 and is the digital expert for the Greens/EFA parliamentary group

She was elected Vice President of the group in 2022. She was involved in the negotiations for the Digital Services Act, which regulates digital platforms and social networks. Her main focus areas are democracy in the digital age, sustainable digitalization and gender equality.