The digital economy lacks a universal definition, but it entails the economic activities that result from billions of everyday online connections among people, businesses, devices, data and processes, from online banking to car sharing to social media.
A report by Greenpeace East Asia and the North China Electric Power University found that China’s data centres produced 99 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018, the equivalent of about 21 million cars driven for one year.
Greenhouse gases aren’t the only type of pollution to be concerned about. Electronic waste (e-waste), which is a byproduct of data centre activities, accounts for 2% of solid waste and 70% of toxic waste in the United States.
Globally, the world produces as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic e-waste a year, worth over $62.5bn and more than the GDP of most countries. Only 20% of this e-waste is recycled.
When it comes to AI, recent research found that training a large AI model — feeding large amounts of data into the computer system and asking for predictions — can emit more than 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent — nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car. The results of this work show that there is a growing problem with AI’s digital footprint.
The digital economy is accelerating faster than the actions being taken in the green economy movement to counter negative environmental impacts. To move forward fast, we must first start thinking differently.
Satellite image of the Bayan Obo mine in China, taken on June 30, 2006. Vegetation appears in red, grassland is light brown, rocks are black and the water surfaces are green. (NASA Earth Observatory)
The world and its intractable challenges are not linear — everything connects to everything else. We must raise awareness about these major blind spots, embrace systems leadership (leading across boundaries), boost circular economy ideas (decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources), leverage an eco-economics approach (an environmentally sustainable economy) and encourage policy-makers to explore the interrelationships between government-wide, system-wide and societal results.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
About the author
Raynold Wonder Alorse, PhD candidate in international relations (International Political Economy of Mining), Queen's University, Ontario
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