“This opinion piece will lead you from the Netherlands to China, with a virtual connection to the U.S. along the way, and it will invite you to reflect on the interdependencies of the digital economy and climate policy.”
Germany, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) In August, the drought-stricken Netherlands discovered that Microsoft’s giant data centre in the north of the country consumed 84 million litres of drinking water in 2021. Up to seven times more than the 12-20 million the company had forecast.
Google also uses the same cooling technology for its Dutch servers. The local authorities are now reassessing the expansion plans of the two companies.
Computers, servers, and other electronic devices consume vast amounts of natural resources. The energy to operate them releases high amounts of CO2, while planned obsolescence and low recycling rates (20%) generate electronic waste. The vast majority of cloud-based data is not used, which results in a huge waste of energy. Without denying the many advantages of these technologies, including environmental benefits, it is important to consider the impacts in order to design a more ecologically friendly use of digital technologies.
But as the Director General of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT stated in a recent speech, while there are clear metrics on problems, those on the ‘positive’ aspects of digital technologies are much less clear. To evaluate real impacts and benefits, real use case studies are needed.
What is clear is that as climate change accelerates, these effects become more and more visible. The case of the Netherlands shows that environmental crises will push legislators to curb the industry’s insatiable growth.
Indeed, companies are already rethinking their business models and products to focus on environmental and climate quality. ICT, artificial intelligence, and supercomputers can also make an important contribution to addressing environmental risks and reducing energy and resource consumption in various industries.
Further light may, in part, be shed at the alarm recently raised by the founder of Huawei, one of the giants of the telecommunications industry, on the company’s future. For “a very painful historical period” of economic contraction and “Huawei must reduce overly optimistic expectations for the future”.
Of course, to survive, Huawei aims to cut costs and focus on revenue-generating areas. It also intends to develop environmental technologies for energy transition and climate change mitigation.
This is a logical choice. The immense conversion and transformation efforts required by the ecological transition represent, according to John Kerry, “the greatest economic opportunity in history”.
Moreover, the climate remains perhaps the only possible area of cooperation between increasingly rival powers. Indeed, it is clear that meeting the growing demand for solutions will require the commitment of all, possibly in the context of globally competitive cooperation. According to the UN, the challenge of climate change requires unprecedented cooperation between companies and governments. Companies are asked to be willing to co-create and jointly deploy solutions. The urgency of the crisis demands immediate results. No one could reasonably forego the acquisition and use of all the best and most effective technologies and solutions.
Huawei’s case is exemplary. With its wealth of solutions and innovation and implementation experience in China, the Shenzhen giant could prove to be a valuable ally for European companies in the sector, also paving the way for a potential exchange of technology and expertise with Europe. One example of Huawei’s cooperation is in Witnica, Poland, where the country’s largest solar park (64.6 MW of power) is located, built by Germany’s BayWa r.e. without state subsidies. Huawei supplied innovative, highly efficient inverters for the project.
The experience acquired in the Chinese market, which has often demonstrated itself to be a laboratory for the uptake of large-scale innovation, could also help European partners to realise the energy and resource efficiency potential – estimated at up to 50 per cent of current consumption – of digital technologies, while increasing competitiveness in the global market.
The potential of these technologies is already being explored in large Chinese cities, more advanced than in Europe.
The potential of these technologies is already being explored in large Chinese cities, more so than in Europe. This is the case, for example, of Digital Twins in Shenzhen, where a city-wide smart governance, real-time digital structure is being built to achieve life-cycle sustainability and resource efficiency. This happens by integrating assets, building and urban services, from waste management to water usage, to healthcare and mobility, in a networked, dynamic environment. On the other hand, the integration of built environment and urban mobility is one of the objectives of European research programmes until 2027.
Huawei is already working with European partners. However, this could change if well-founded problems concerning the security and protection of data, systems, networks, and strategic facilities are not convincingly addressed. Besides the technical issues, however, it is also a matter of political decision-making.
The current complex state of relations between Europe and China may result in European companies missing a significant fast-track opportunity in technology and business.
These are issues that can only be defined within the framework of greater European sovereignty and autonomy, both industrial and technical, as German Chancellor Scholz mentioned in a key speech in Prague yesterday. Discussing his vision for the future of the EU, Scholz insisted in particular on the control of semiconductor production chains.
“Economic independence,” says Scholz, “does not mean self-sufficiency”. According to the Chancellor, “We need a ‘game plan’, something like a ‘Made in Europe 2030’ strategy”.
For the Chancellor, however, the triad of ‘partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival’ remains valid in relations with China. The way is through diversification of political and economic approach, of supply, while increasing the influence, also militarily, of a united Europe.
So, how should we proceed on the narrow path between cooperation and competition? How do we collectively respond to the challenges of climate change in an increasingly fragmented world? These are questions that remain unanswered.
One thing that is certain today is that a quick transition is no longer a matter of choice, but a necessity.