Digital solutions have vast potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but they can also lead to a higher environmental burden. The Joint Research Centre’s recent foresight report: “Towards a green and digital future” identified the key requirements that the EU needs to meet to make sure the green and digital transitions reinforce each other.
The Joint Research Centre’s (JRC) report [link] published on 29 June analysed how current and future digital technologies could help the European Union to reach climate neutrality in the next decades. The report informed the European Commission’s Communication: ‘2022 Strategic Foresight Report [link]: Twinning the green and digital transitions in the new geopolitical context’.
Researchers took a closer look at five sectors that are among the highest greenhouse gas emitters in the EU: agriculture, buildings and construction, energy, energy-intensive industries, and transport and mobility. They drew up two case studies for each sector to show how digital technologies could help to make them more sustainable. They also examined how economic, social and political factors will influence the green and digital transitions.
Based on this analysis, the report derives key requirements for the success of the European Union’s green and digital transitions.
In the next weeks, we will be covering stories of how the Commission’s scientists at the JRC are helping to make a success of the green and digital transitions. We are launching this mini-campaign with this piece, taking seven insights from our new foresight report.
Let’s see what we need to achieve in the next decades for a climate-neutral and digitally empowered Europe.
Reliable and interoperable technologies
Climate neutrality by 2050 will require giant leaps in innovation and a complex technological ecosystem with many interlinked solutions. Artificial intelligence, Internet of things, 5G and blockchain and next-generation computing technologies will help us manage this increased complexity.
A prime example is the energy system, which will have to cope with a much higher number of producers and a much more volatile input due to the higher share of solar and wind energy. Demand will have to adapt dynamically to the ever-changing supply. Smart appliances will help us decide when to charge our car or wash our dishes and clothes.
For this complex system to work, green-digital solutions will have to be interoperable and work reliably and securely. A functioning innovation and data ecosystems are necessary to develop and implement the solutions needed for the green and digital transitions.
Minimising the environmental footprint of green-digital technologies
Digital technologies come with significant climate and environmental burdens stemming from both their use and manufacturing. Data centres, artificial intelligence and blockchain use ever increasing amounts of electricity, materials and water.
In addition, the digital technologies depend heavily on the availability of rare earth materials since most digital devices are either not recycled or very difficult to recycle. Consequently, “eWaste” is the fastest growing waste category.
To ensure that green-digital technologies have an overall positive environmental effect, research and innovation has to optimise their environmental performance throughout their whole life cycle. In addition, regulations could support the uptake of more environmentally friendly technologies.
Openness to change
Besides the efforts of businesses, society can also play a decisive role in advancing the green transition. If people are more and more ready to change their habits to live a sustainable life, that will make a big difference. Science based information and labels may help to change consumption habits.
Giving up on owning private cars and upgrading the governance of transport and mobility systems, for example by making Mobility-as-a-Service widely available, could help to make transport more efficient and cut emissions. Eating less meat and thereby lowering its production could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land use in the agriculture sector. Moving out of or reshaping family homes once children have grown up would save energy and lower the demand for additional housing.
These changes cannot come top-down. Inclusive debates could raise awareness and commitment, examine the ways forward and make us more open to change.
Available, accessible and secure data
Data is essential for a sustainable society. It can unlock large efficiency gains in resource use across many different sectors. Data is necessary for a circular economy. It is key to ensure transparency of products and value chains and to reveal unsustainable practices.
For this to happen, enterprises, governments and end users need to be willing and able to share their data. They should be informed on how their data will help to achieve climate, environmental and social objectives. Data owners should have peace of mind knowing that their data is being used ethically thanks to strict legal requirements.
For example, farmers should enjoy the direct benefits of their data, instead of suffering disadvantages due to data monopolies of big accumulators, like corporate providers of farming equipment.
Everyone should be empowered to benefit from their data. Standards could help to ensure that the collected data is interoperable and of high quality. Privacy rules need to protect end users. Finally, cybersecurity as a crosscutting technology priority could guarantee the security of shared data.
Standards and regulations
Standards, rules, and regulations will play a crucial role in driving the green and digital transitions. They will channel investment into green-digital solutions, prevent the misuse of market power, and ensure interoperability between new and older generations of technology.
Market structures that also include small and medium-size companies are key for high levels of competition and innovation. Standards can help to ensure that big players, who for example provide crucial digital platforms, cannot keep new and innovative enterprises out of the market. Moreover, data ownership rules could help to avoid data monopolies.
Support to smaller players would help them implement green-digital solutions and ensure a diversity of players in the market.
By indicating which economic activities are sustainable, governments and financial actors could help to unlock the public and private investments that are necessary for successful twin transitions. Policy coherence will be necessary across the different sectors, regions, and levels of governments.
A fair and inclusive transformation
To ensure widespread acceptance of the green and digital transitions, lower-income and more vulnerable parts of society should also actively benefit from the transitions. Those who face energy poverty and lack digital skills or connectivity are at a heavy disadvantage. The transitions should improve their situation instead of bringing additional hardships.
For example, subsidies to buy electric cars may benefit only those who can afford expensive cars, while those who are not in such a privileged position also contribute to these subsidies through their taxes. However, through shared mobility, like car sharing apps, those who would not be able to buy electric cars can also use them.
For fair and inclusive transitions, policy measures should be attentive to the specific needs and situation of lower-income and vulnerable groups of society. One crucial measure is to help citizens gain the skills with which they can succeed in the growing green and digital market segments.
Markets that drive the transitions
New green-digital technologies and sustainable business models often compete with already established ones, with a large customer base which is a challenge for their competitiveness and uptake. This means that the transition to a sustainable and circular economy may require special financial and regulatory support.
Enabling markets could be the answer to this problem. Enabling markets would follow strict green standards and internalise environmental and societal costs of pollution or emissions. This would mean that all market actors have an incentive to think long-term, invest in green-digital technologies and avoid solutions that do not have a future in a green Europe.
Foresight shaping future policy
Building on the findings of the JRC report, the European Commission has adopted the Communication ‘2022 Strategic Foresight Report: Twinning the green and digital transitions in the new geopolitical context’, which identifies key areas where political action is needed to reinforce the synergies between the twin transitions.