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Digital Sustainability: a French update

  • Gauthier Roussilhe

The recent launch of the online magazine “Branch” has opened up the topic of sustainable digital technology to a wider audience. This first issue also provides a better understanding of the position of the English-speaking world of tech and design regarding digital sustainability. However, what about the French or German landscape? Sustainable digital technology is a complex subject that will require international cooperation, but the French community publish in French and rarely translate, the Germans seem to do the same. It might be time for us to pass the buck to the French side to show how we are doing differently and what we are doing.

Disclaimer: I do not represent the French sustainable digital community, I am just trying to synthesize the action of many individuals and collectives for our English speaking friends.

How we do differently

One of the biggest differences between the French approach and the English-speaking approach, in my opinion, is the way we select and assess environmental impacts. In France, we tend to follow a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach that includes four factors: GHG emissions (CO2eq), water consumption (Liters), abiotic resources consumption (Sbeq. Or Antimony equivalent) and primary energy consumption (MJ). Like everybody else we measure these impacts on three different poles: data centers, networks and end-user equipment. Since we follow a LCA approach we measure environmental impacts from manufacturing and use. One of our leading LCA experts when it comes to digital services, Julie Orgelet, manages to integrate End of Life impacts (EoL) by adding a volume of generated e-waste to her LCAs. But today EoL is not included in the measurement of the environmental footprint of the digital sector. To sum up, French designers and developers tend to develop sustainable digital services knowing that they must aim to reduce these four factors: GHG emissions, water consumption, consumption of resources and consumption of primary energy. Thus, the reference tool that we generally use in the community is based on GreenIT’s LCAs and therefore calculates the impacts during manufacture and use: Ecoindex.

So what’s the difference with the English-speaking approach? The main focus seems to be on reducing carbon emissions through the vector of electricity. This implies that there is only one factor of environmental impact: carbon. This impact is also calculated on data centers, networks and terminals. When we use the vector of electricity to calculate carbon emissions we are only counting usage and not including equipment manufacturing. Finally, it seems that the English-speaking approach focuses more on the carbon intensity of the energy mix. This implies that the main lever for action is the integration of more renewable energies into the energy mix and secondly, the reduction of the data transfer to reduce the electricity cost for transmission (GB/kWh). The most widely used measurement tool appears to be Wholegrain Digital’s Website Carbon. It measures the electricity consumption linked to data transfer and the carbon emissions linked to the nature of the energy mix.

Electricity is not an energy source and cannot be an environmental factor.
French approach English-speaking approach
Main assessment method Digital service LCA Energy intensity of data transmission
Environmental factors GHG emissions,
water consumption,
resource consumption,
primary energy consumption
GHG emissions,
(power consumption)
Including Manufacturing,
Perimeter Data centers, networks,
end-user equipments
Data centers, networks,
end-user equipments
Mainstream measurement tool Ecoindex Website Carbon

These two approaches therefore give very different results. For example, my website emits 0.08gCO2 per visit according to Website Carbon and 1.51g eqCO2 according to Ecoindex. The difference in result is due to the inclusion of manufacturing impacts. Although we inherit the structures of our respective countries and our methods are not alike, I am personally curious and inspired by the work of Tom Jarrett or Wholegrain Digital on the subject. Our differences do not have to oppose us.

Carbonmeter on Organic Basics’ website

Do these different approaches influence digital design methods? It seems to me so and I will try to explain it with an example given in Branch. The Organic Basics website promotes a low impact website approach. Indeed, they have incorporated certain good practices. They also tried an approach that I find very interesting: the experience of the site depends on the carbon intensity of the energy mix that powers their server. The more carbon there is per kWh and the fewer assets are called up (the site can theoretically close), the less carbon there is per kWh the more elements they load (HD photos, animation, etc.). We can call it carbon-responsive design. One of the ideas I really like is the vector processing (SVG) of product thumbnails and loading images only when clicking on the product sheet. However, a fundamental problem with Organic Basics’s approach is that the less carbon the electricity has, the more the site uses. The production of energy has other impacts than the emission of CO2. Two problems then emerge, firstly, this is an example of a rebound effect: the drop in carbon intensity leads to an increase in electricity consumption. Second, under the pretext of reducing the impact of one factor, we increase the impact of other factors that we do not look at. For example, in France, we know that the production of 1 kWh involves the use of 4 liters of water (production of electricity via steam). In my humble opinion, the focus on carbon emissions for use (via the vector of electricity) can become very misleading, even counterproductive over time. This opinion is obviously open to debate! In order to be fair and to show how I approach the question myself, you can visit here one of the lastest websites that I helped create for the Low-tech Lab.

What we are doing: France’s position today

I cannot really know why the English-speaking community has positioned itself in this way, however I can try to explain the position of the French-speaking community :

  • We have experts who have been working on the subject of Green IT using an LCA approach for ten years
  • We have had digital service LCA experts for a few years (2013 at least)
  • We generally assume that the completion of transition goals requires a decrease in primary energy consumption, whatever the origin of the mix
  • Our approach is based more on state regulation rather than competition from market-based private actors
  • We inherit a low carbon energy mix because of nuclear (whatever we like it or not) so the focus on electricity / carbon is not relevant for us right now
  • We do not have any strong industrial actors/lobbies that would have bypassed the first criticisms of the digital environmental footprint
  • We are a digital colony of the GAFAM / American ecosystem

Perhaps it would be interesting to engage in the same exercise of political and historical analysis for each country. In this specific case, it is interesting to list the advances obtained at the level of French public institutions.

At the level of the French State:

  • At the end of 2020, an interministerial roadmap will define the commitment of the French state around 3 pillars: developing knowledge of the environmental footprint of the digital sector, reducing this environmental footprint and transforming digital ecosystem into a lever for ecological transition.
  • The interministerial conference “Digital and Environment: making transitions converge”, bringing together the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and the State Secretariat for Digital, released a fund of 300 million euros for “Green tech” start-up projects. A call for research projects on sustainable digital design has been allocated a fund of 1 million euros (Perfecto 2021). A fund of 1.5 million euros has also been released for small and medium-sized businesses to develop digital services with high environmental performance.

At the level of the French parliament:

  • The anti-waste and circular economy law (AGEC law) begins to frame legislative work
  • From January 1, 2021, a repairability index will be mandatory on certain equipment including smartphones, laptops and televisions (article 16)
  • From January 1, 2022, all French internet access providers must indicate on customer invoices the amount of data consumed and the equivalent in GHG emissions (Article 13.3)
  • In order to fight planned obsolescence and increase the lifespan of equipment, software updates will be mandatory for a minimum of 2 years and “comfort” updates must be separated from security updates. (Article 27)
  • The purchasing policy of the public administration should favor eco-designed digital services and softwares, that is to say, those whose design makes it possible to limit the energy consumption associated with their use. (Article 55)
  • From January 1, 2021, the public administration will have to purchase IT equipment from reuse or which incorporates reused or recycled materials. (Article 58)

At the Senate level:

  • The Senate did preparatory work on the environmental impacts of digital technology and formulated 25 proposals to make digital more sober
  • The Senate is also introducing a bill to reduce the environmental footprint of the digital sector. The measures proposed include, for example: the integration of digital sobriety in the curriculum of IT engineers, the creation of a monitoring observatory, the inclusion of the environmental footprint of digital activities in the CSR assessment of companies, harsher sanctions towards planned obsolescence, increase the legal warranty for IT equipment and updates from 2 to 5 years, make sustainable digital design compulsory for digital public services and large companies, ban the autoplay of videos, etc

At the level of the French ecological transition agency (ADEME):

  • The French agency for ecological transition has launched a project to measure the environmental footprint of the digital sector in France to help steer public policies (publication expected at the end of December 2021)
  • The agency is also co-financing the NégaOctet project, which will allow the creation of a common benchmark for measuring the environmental impacts of digital technology in order to unify our LCA framework (publication planned for mid-2021)

At the level of the French telecommunications regulator (ARCEP):

  • ARCEP has launched a consultation on the environmental footprint of telecom networks, the results of which will be visible at the end of 2020
  • ARCEP co-finances with ADEME the project to measure the environmental footprint of digital technology in France

This stacking of news could make it seem like a lot is happening in France right now. This is partly true, but it is also the fruit of the work of certain French organizations for many years: GreenIT, the Ecoinfo research group, the Shift Project and many more. We benefited from an aligning of the stars between the different strata of French society: public institutions (Senate, parliament, government, etc.) are listening closely, French society appears to be interested, there is intense media coverage and the usual lobbyists on the subject seem unprepared.

Where we might be going

There are also headwinds that are slowing the transformation of the digital ecosystem, but we might have secured our position somehow. The emergence of the term “Green tech” is a semi-victory, it is the fusion of the usual thinking: the digitalisation allows to reduce the GHG emissions by default (which is not demonstrated) ; and of a new thinking: the environmental footprint of the digital sector must drastically reduce. The next step might be to ask the question much more frankly: what does a digital ecosystem (infrastructure and services) look like in a world stabilized at +2°C?

To answer this question, we will have to greatly improve our knowledge of the environmental impacts of digital technology. Many years, and international collaboration, will be necessary to stabilize our knowledge on the topic. It will also be necessary to have a much better understanding of the possible positive impacts of digital technology in specific contexts. It seems dangerous to presuppose that more digitalisation is necessarily better, especially when we are facing planetary limits. The recent study by Victor Court and Steve Sorrell shows that ultimately we do not really know how to qualify the positive impacts of digital.

We also need to have better control over the field to prevent consultancy firms (Deloitte, E&Y, Atos, etc.) from taking over projects and setting the rules of the game when they generally have little expertise on the subject (in France at least). The structuring of the community of sustainable digital practitioners (designers, developers, engineers, etc.) will be necessary to deal with these new players. The solution of the cooperative or the BCorp are surely priority avenues to ensure that our economic models do not thwart the transition objectives carried by the community.

So much for the news from France, looking forward to hearing what is happening in Germany or the UK or many other countries.