Information Technology

The Environmental Impacts of Information Technology

IT related activities have significantly spread into the economy during the recent decades, boosted by the fast expansion of internet and digital services and the mass production of computers, communication devices, data centers and across the world. In 2014, digital services were already using 10% of global electricity production. This share keeps increasing year after year and is already responsible for more greenhouse gases emissions than air transportation. The IT industry is also using growing amounts of metals, rare earths, plastics and minerals. According to the French Environmental Agency, a 2-kg computer requires 800 kg of raw materials and emits on its whole life-cycle 169 kg CO2eq., where 124 kg CO2eq or 73% are coming from the sourcing and manufacturing phases.

IT devices, data centers and infrastructures are highly energy and resource intensive. As many tools and devices, they can be a significant to high threat to environmental sustainability as well as key enablers of the green transition, such as energy efficiency or car sharing. Their impacts are consequently related to:
+ their final use and how they impact this final use : in this case, their impact intensity and characteristics are given by the NEC of the given final use and refers to the relevant NEC framework;
+ IT devices and services own environmental impacts, which are captured in the specific IT NEC components. The IT framework includes semiconductors, hardwares, electronic components, communication devices, software as well as IT services along the whole value chain, from component manufacturers to technology retailers and service providers.

How the NEC measures impacts of Information Technology

The IT NEC differs when considering three types of activities:
+ hardware, devices and other electronic equipment
+ data center based activities such as data center construction and management or cloud services
+ software and IT services

For hardware, devices and other electronic equipment, the IT NEC is based on the main environmental impacts that can be measured at activity level, as follows:
+ Environmental rating: product-based environmental ratings such as certifications or other third-party comparative assessments;
+ Product lifespan component: based on resource depletion’s pace and waste generation.
Planned obsolescence or low reparability imply a NEC malus for reducing products’ lifespan. Effective end-of-cycle management practices and high product’s reliability implies a positive NEC.

For data center related activities, the IT NEC is based on data center energy efficiency and energy source:
+ Energy efficiency: measured by the Power Usage Efficiency, PUE, ratio of the total energy consumed by the data center over the energy consumed by the computer systems;
+ Renewable energy sourcing: measured by the share of renewable electricity in the total electricity consumption.
Additionally and when assessing software and IT services, a specific NEC component can be applied based on the impact on the data flow: a qualitative assessment of digital pollution generation or reduction. Algorithms generating spam and digital advertising are given a negative incremental NEC, warranting a malus for digital pollution.

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