The digital footprint and the limits to growth, I

Energy consumption

I am having a discussion with a friend and to show that I am smart I use the complicated word “dialectical“. After an inquiry about what I mean I realize that I cannot explain the term and I reach out to ask the popular artificial intelligence ChatGPT for help. But what’s awaiting me there? “ChatGPT is at capacity right now (…) get notified when we’re back“. What? Sounds to me like a digital version of a door sign in an old-fashioned grocery store saying, “temporarily closed, be right back“. Capacity limits on the internet – an irritation that makes me think. First, to me this shows how easily we are getting used to a sense of infinite and immediate availability, particularly in the digital sphere. Second, and more generally, I think we are used to a story of limitlessness, the newest version telling us that digitalization will enable us to overcome all the ecological limits to economic growth. I am skeptical, curious what the real ecological impacts of digitalization are, and how it relates to the limits to growth we are facing. Luckily, a scientific working group on “digitalization and sustainability” has taken up the task to look at this relationship more systematically [1]. In one paper they ask how increasing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the economy influences energy use on a macroeconomic level [2]. Energy use is interesting because it is one of the most important factors for ecological problems. The answer depends on the strength of four different consequences of digitalization for energy use (illustration): Two effects can decrease energy use (green), whereas two are increasing it (red).

1.) One greening factor of digitalization is rising energy efficiency: think about reduced car traffic by tele-conferencing, making production processes more energy efficient or intelligent logistics saving transport energy. That’s pretty straight forward.

2.) A second green potential is sectoral change: think about more economic activity, products and jobs moving from industrial sectors to service sectors through digitalization. Service sectors are generally less energy intensive, which could lead to less energy consumption.
We hear a lot about both of these effects of digitalization, yet that is not the full picture.

3.) The direct effects of digitalization refers to all the energy needed to run and cool servers, train algorithms, use server buildings, data transmission, employ workers etc. The digital world needs real infrastructure, places and people to work out.

4.) Next to these tangible effects of digitalization, there is also an indirect one: economic growth

Illustration from study [2] by increasing labor productivity. For many that is also exactly the aim of digitalization but the problem is that economic growth remains closely linked with rising energy use.

Whether digitalization at the end of the day is helping us save energy is not easy to tell because we lack the precise data for all the four aspects and it is hard to measure which effects do really belong to digitalization alone. The authors still try to show tendencies and conclude that so far digitalization seems to increase total energy consumption in the economy. Okay fine, you may say, but why should I care about higher energy consumption if we can use green energy, isn’t that sustainable too? The issue is that we are still very far from reaching 100% renewable energy and it gets much harder to reach that goal if energy consumption is growing at the same time. For this reason, we can also doubt whether digitalization can actually help facilitate green growth. In a different study on digitalization and green growth the authors conclude that “…digitalization by itself does not lead to a sufficient absolute decoupling, i.e., a cut back of resource and energy demands and environmental impacts fast enough and deep enough to reach important sustainability goals, such as keeping global warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius”. [3]

So what we can learn: there are serious ecological impacts by the expansion of digital tools and digital sectors that deserve more attention. Digitalization is not sustainable by itself but it depends on the political-economic framework that we give it in our societies. This will be the next issue of this two part series, where we look at the concept of “digital sufficiency”.

Sources: (last access on 21.02.2023)
[2] Lange, S.; Pohl, J.; Santarius, T. Digitalization and energy consumption. Does ICT reduce energy demand? Ecological Economics 2020, 176. Available at:

[3]Santarius, T.; Pohl, J.; Lange, S. Digitalization and the Decoupling Debate: Can ICT Help to Reduce Environmental Impacts While the Economy Keeps Growing? Sustainability 2020, 12, 7496. Available at: p. 12.

Author: Sven-David Pfau, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien

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