Towards the end of 2019, the European Commission (EC) presented the Green Deal roadmap as a response for a sustainable digital transition.
While the cloud is still in its first stages of development, it is time—now more than ever—to make forward-thinking decisions in order for the benefits of the new digital economy to trump the harmful ecological, social and health consequences.
Through the optimisations it enables (transport, power supply, mutualised infrastructure), by 2030, digital technology can reduce global CO2 emissions by 20%. For a long time, experts and politicians believed that the digitalisation of our societies would lead to an increase in global electricity consumption.
While Internet traffic has increased twelvefold since 2010, the International Energy Agency notes that the electric energy consumption of data centers has remained stable: 200 TWh in 2019, about 0.8% of global power consumption, which can be explained by a general gain in network efficiency and a web hosting shifting to the cloud and renewable energies.
High hopes lie ahead: by making the right ethical, regulatory and technological choices, the benefits of a global digitalisation will not be outweighed by deleterious ecological impacts.
At a time when lockdown has just thrown Europe into the greatest moment of digital transformation in history, we, as digital players, have the opportunity to stand out as key contributors to enable modern societies and the future economy by putting these transformative forces at the forefront of a fairer, more responsible and greener society. And because 80% of the world's IT is not yet a member of the cloud, this new stage of development has only just begun.
The exponential growth of digital economy can both increase the environmental footprint and accelerate the ecological transition
Digital is not an intangible industry: it relies on cloud services that need giant data centers (hyperscalers), the fundamental raw material of the entire digital society. Nowadays, data centers account for almost all digital power consumption in Europe and are at the heart of tomorrow's ecological and political challenges. While online traffic is growing (+40% between February and April 2020), cutting-edge data centers are improving energy efficiency and water usage and strongly and sustainably limiting the growth of energy demand, while bringing water usage down to almost zero.
Technological advances in recent years have already made it possible to perform up to four times as many calculations for the same energy footprint, halve the PUE (Power Usage Effectiveness) index of a data center and allow dry cooling systems with a water use close to zero.
The cloud computing revolution is certainly part of the environmental equation, because once widespread, it will reduce the IT industry's greenhouse gas emissions by 95%, about 4.5 million tons of CO2 emissions (2013 Global e-Sustainability Initiative).
The cloud, part of the environmental solution
We often talk about sovereignty, but instead, we should talk about lack of European sovereignty, and our relative inability to participate in shaping tomorrow's digital infrastructure as responsibly as we want.
What happens today is that we end up with a steep power law curve where 90% of the value is captured by less than 10% of the players, and where Europeans are supplying just around 10% of the demand. Europe gave the world democracy and enlightenment, centuries ago. And yet today, despite encouraging trends, Europe is behind, in tech and innovation.
Two other continents are racing ahead with massive scale and velocity, while both practice protectionist and deleterious tactics designed to secure advantage, and our own “buy European” instincts remain largely non-existent. This configuration pegs Europe as the perfect battlefield for them to capture extra market share, but most importantly when it comes to the cloud, to control data processing, storage and exponential derivative value.
There is a new challenge ahead, one that the EU has started addressing from the regulation angle (unfortunately) with GDPR for example. Platforms all over the world took note, and consumers are now reaping the benefits of this, to some extent improving their own individual sovereignty. But did this help our local digital economy? Quite the contrary; there is a non proportional cost for the challengers.
We can choose to stay idle, or we can redefine the way we approach this problem, to protect our core European values, and present a third option that is different and complementary to “me first” model the other continents offer.
In order to productize Europe’s core values, we need to wrap it all up in a Renaissance 2.0 envelope, one where we redefine how we want technology to shape our future, one where we collectively decide to shape how technology serves us.
To date, environmental liability considerations have not influenced the decisions of cloud computing giants. Europe needs to assess and take action for an eco-friendly digital environment.
Shifting up a gear: putting digital at the forefront of the ecological transition and making it everyone's responsibility
For a long time to come, the choices we make today will weigh heavily on our digital industry and our environment.
Yes, Europe must encourage data centers and cloud providers to adopt virtuous practices, both in terms of power consumption and water resources! Aspiring performance objectives must be set, encouraged and aligned on a European scale. Transparency must become the norm, to the benefit of customers, institutions and all individuals.
Some unspeakable practices must disappear: the waste of millions of cubic metres of drinking water in cooling towers to cool data centers, a process that is also conducive to bacterial proliferation, extensively treated with chemicals. This practice, which is nearly banned in France, persists in some European countries and needs to be globally regulated.
Europe must also review its striking energy policy, which in recent years has destroyed all the virtuous incentives aimed at controlling energy consumption. The future development of intermittent energy sources goes hand in hand with the ability of data centers to modulate or even offload their energy consumption.
The fact remains that nowadays solutions exist to minimise energy, water and environmental impacts, and Europe has a major part to play in it.
Yann Lechelle, CEO Scaleway, Founding member FD & GaiaX Arnaud de Bermingham, President & Founder of Scaleway, Founding member GaiaX Nicolas Brien, CEO France Digitale Myrthe Hooijman, Director Policy and Governmental Affairs, Techleap.nl Simon Schaefer, President Startup Portugal Roxanne Varza, Director of Station F Francesco Cerruti, Director General VC Hub Italia Karolina Marzec, CEO of CWBC Poland Arnaud Muller, Founder & Executive Chairman Saagie, France Digitale Green AI Task Force Janet Todorova, Founder Institute, Co-founder Sofia Startups Ivan Vasilev, Executive Board Member BESCO - The Bulgarian Startup Association Nina Nikolic, Cofounder and Executive Boardmember Startup Macedonia Gianmarco Carnovale, chairman, Roma Startup Ionut Tata, CEO Iceberg, Vicechair @RODIH Association of Digital Innovation Hubs Romania Monica Jiman, Board Member and CCSO PENTALOG Europe and Asia, Advisor GWiT Karolina Marzec, CEO of CWBC Poland Caroline Ramade, Founder & CEO 50inTech Andrew Parish, Director, Startup Ireland Lubomila Jordanova, CEO & Founder, Plan A & Greentech Alliance Pedro Rocha Vieira, Co-Founder and CEO, Beta-i Portugal Barbara Belvisi, Founder Interstellar Augustin Jarak, Founder & President, Startup Croatia Marianne Abib-Pech, Founder and Principal LTF Partners , UK Laura Calmore, President CEE Changers Jan Bormans, CEO, European Startup Network Gaelle Pinson, General Manager Hub France IA Oana Petrus, Co-founder Techsylvania