Let Us Work Towards Digital Sobriety
Digital sobriety is a principle that refers to consumers’ responsible usage of digital technologies. Consumers are required to reduce his or her need to purchase high-powered devices, lessen the need to frequently replace such devices and avoid any energy-intensive practices while using such devices. In other words, to use digital technologies wisely as and when necessary.
Digital technologies themselves carry a wide meaning. It refers to electronic tools, systems, devices and resources that generate, store or process data. Common examples of digital technologies are websites, online buying and selling, online games, smartphones, cryptocurrency, e-books, video streaming, blogs, ATMs, digital cameras and many more.
Efforts to promote the principle of digital sobriety are based on the awareness of the negative impacts of digital technologies on the environment especially on energy consumption and increased carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are the biggest contributor to global warming and climate change. The contribution of digital technologies to global greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 50 per cent since 2013 from 2.5 percent to 3.7 percent of total global emissions. Alternatively, a study by the Bodersteps Institute estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from the production, operation and disposal of digital equipment and infrastructures are between 1.8 and 3.2 percent of global emissions as of 2020.
The increase of electronic waste or e-waste is another environmental impact of digital technologies. Based on The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 Report, a total of 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was generated globally in 2019, an increase of 21 percent in just five years. The report also shows that e-waste is expected to reach 74 Mt by 2030, nearly double in only 16 years. This makes e-waste as world’s fastest-growing waste in the domestic waste stream and is largely due to the high utilisation rate of electrical and electronic equipment, short life-cycle and limited repair options.
From the per capita e-waste generation perspective, Malaysia produces 364 kilotons (kt) of e-waste in 2019 or an average of 11.1kg per capita. The number is considered high for a small nation with only 32 million populations. This number is almost equal to developed countries such as the United States of America (21kg/capita), Japan (20kg/capita) and New Zealand (19.2kg/capita). If compared to the Southeast Asian region, Malaysia ranks second after Singapore (19.9kg/capita) while other countries recorded low e-waste such as Indonesia (6.1kg/capita), Thailand (9.2kg/capita), Philippines (3.9kg/capita) and Laos (2.9kg/capita).
The demand for natural resources used for the production of tools and devices linked to digital technologies increased tremendously too. For example, electricity used in the production as well as the cooling of the Data Centre. In the United Kingdom (UK), eight percent of its energy generation is used for the internet. Meanwhile, mechanical cooling is responsible for 25 percent of the total energy consumption in the Data Centre. In addition, raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, rare earth, gold, platinum and a lot more are also needed in the production of digital tools and devices. These raw materials could be recycled but unfortunately, the recycling rate of e-waste is still low, especially for developing and poor countries.
Individual way or style of using different digital technologies too has different environmental impacts. For example, opening many applications simultaneously, turning on the device for longer hours, storing too much unused data and so on will affect energy consumption. Many consumer activities connected to digital technologies also affect energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, every search query releases about 1.45 grams of carbon dioxide. If a person did 50 search queries a day, 26 kilograms of carbon dioxide will be emitted in a year. Imagine if the number were multiplied by millions of internet users globally, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted will be tremendous.
Most of the public or internet users are unaware of the environmental impact of digital technologies. Therefore, there is a need to revitalise the digital sobriety principle in society. In general, the principle aims to educate prudent use of digital technologies. This includes moderate usage of digital technologies. It is important to remember that a simple act such as sending an email will have a certain impact on the environment. Sending emails is preferable because it can reduce the use of papers, fewer trees are cut down and finally, it will contribute to forest conservation. Regrettably, this assumption is not necessarily true especially if we go beyond the limits in the use of digital technologies.
As users or consumers, we could contribute to better usage of digital technologies by optimising the use of devices or tools by turning them off if not in use, deleting unused data or uninstalling unused applications. We should also use the devices or tools longer. In other words, do not submit to the need of buying the latest version of devices or tools such as smartphones or laptops but instead, use the devices as long as possible and opt to repair them instead of buying a new one.