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As we examined the problem of digital emissions, we have followed a fairly straightforward narrative line. We started by discussing our professional practice as individual actors (many of us from developing economies) to see our place in a large system and how many of our actions depend on our environment and the organizations we work for. Then, we considered the role of Internet-based organizations to the extent to which their components or subsystems and their relationship with other stakeholders (providers, clients, employees, contractors) impact the environment.

We will now shift to looking at the effects of digital economies that are visible around you. The environmental effects of climate change are especially disproportionate in developing countries,[1] despite containing the highest amount of digitally excluded populations.[2] Therefore, professionals living in developing countries are more likely to see or experience these effects. Take for example the hypothetical situation of being a gig worker from Sonora, Mexico working as web developer for a EU-based company. The company's electronic devices use lithium, which is extracted in Sonora.[3] These circular effects are difficult to see but can occur at different levels and in different stages of the products' lifecycle.

The negative effects of extractive industries are mostly felt in high-risk regions. The greatest example of these is the mining of elements such as cobalt, rare earths, lithium, platinum and nickel, which is expected to increase in the next few years, given that less than 1% of all ICT elements are recycled at the end of their lifetime, with very few incentives for industries to do so.[4] Furthermore, the risk of future trade restrictions from China and other countries open up the interest in obtaining resources from other countries.

Local impact inventory[edit | edit source]

Tracking the effects of a single organization (such as the one you might work for) is not always easy, since it would require tracking every single physical component and material, service providers and the dynamics it creates, connecting it to specific places around the world. However, for the effects of raising the awareness to the need for social justice in your own context, please consider the impacts of organizations with digital objectives to the communities close to you. We will explore some of the impacts of extractive industries (water, minerals, land use) by repurposing the framework by Lèbre et al. (2020)[5] to consider how organizations through a digital transition can be held accountable for negative impacts to communities.

Waste[edit | edit source]

Extracting resources from the ground can release by-products to the air and water, many of them toxic to humans and wildlife. While not present in the framework —since it focuses on mining— it is important to consider the prevalence of e-waste in the environment at the end of electronic devices' lifetimes, which is most likely produced by companies in developed countries.[6] Developing countries lack the proper facilities and the specialized know-how to manage e-waste and prevent its damage to the environment.

Water[edit | edit source]

Water is a resource necessary for digital artifacts, either during mineral extraction, for their purification, and their refining; this requires freshwater sources for these processes. Water is also used during the operation of datacenters for cooling systems.[7] It is estimated that each unit of material extracted requires nine equal units of water during its lifecycle.[8] It's important to consider freshwater pollution, especially with toxic elements like lead, as an important side effect of these processes, which can lead to larger-scale effects.

Conservation[edit | edit source]

The rise of digital technologies will bring new environmental dynamics that are likely to affect life on land and water. The clearest examples of these cases are those of mining, but the list unfortunately does not end there, ranging from the effects of constructing and operating datacenters, to the effects of underwater cables to life in water.[9]

Land[edit | edit source]

All stages of the electronics' lifecycle implementation of digital infrastructure (extraction, manufacturing, logistics and transportation, operation, disposal) require physical space, from large spaces for mining to digital communications antennae. Digital services are in many cases driving the use of untouched lands, sometimes belonging to indigenous and low-income communities.[10] These operations can also render other plots of land unusable for farming and conservation.

Communities[edit | edit source]

Digital production and operation can have a direct impact in communities, impacting among other things, the access to land, natural resources, cultural assets and traditional knowledge, and livelihood. A current example of this is the impact that cobalt mining has had in communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo.[11] Consider how mining, datacenter operations, or digital communications infrastructures are impacting the lives of individuals around you. Other examples are the relocation of individuals for the construction of digital operation centers such as cryptocurrency mining, while utilizing the communities' resources.[12][13][14]

Social vulnerability[edit | edit source]

Digital technologies can increase social divisions, and reduce the ability of individuals to respond to natural or negative human-made events. Examples of this are:

  • Pollution caused by mining or e-waste can increase the likelihood of children to become ill.
  • The increasing use of resources (water, electricity, farming lands) decreases the capacity of communities to cope with natural disasters or grow economically.
  • Damage to the environment will increase the likelihood and impact of natural disasters.

Governance[edit | edit source]

This element is of great importance to ensure the delivery of fair conflict resolution and justice in the face of rights violations perpetrated by organizations that provide digital-based services.

Assess the impact close to you[edit | edit source]

Consider the current presence of digital organizations in your city or country, and the impacts they're creating in vulnerable communities.

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Find the impacts near you
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Where does your organization create impact?
  • Where does your organization have a physical presence? See for example Google's datacenter locations.
  • Check if the organization has any environmental policies regarding its use of water, environmental conservation, use of land, impacts on communities including low-income communities, and the commitment to reducing social vulnerability. An example of this is Microsoft's environmental policies. Does your organization follow a similar approach?
  • Also consider any policies regarding these actions in regards to contractors to ensure that no responsibilities for negative effects are being delegated to other stakeholders overseas.

Resources[edit | edit source]

  • GoodElectronics contains very relevant information about the environmental impact of electronics, including useful reports that can support your research on the subject.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Pörtner, H. O., Roberts, D. C., Adams, H., Adler, C., Aldunce, P., Ali, E., Begum, R. A., Betts, R., Kerr, R. B., Biesbroek, R., & others. (2022). Climate change 2022: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. IPCC.
  2. Ferreboeuf, H. (2019, March 5). "Lean ICT: Towards digital sobriety": Our new report on the environmental impact of ICT. The Shift Project.
  3. Forbes Staff. (2021, October 15). Con reforma, México apuntaría a límites en minerales estratégicos, quizá cobre. Forbes México.
  4. Ericsson, M., Löf, O., & Löf, A. (2020). Digital Economy Growth And Mineral Resources: Implications for Developing Countries (No. 16; UNCTAD Technical Notes on ICT for Development). UNCTAD.
  5. Lèbre, É., Stringer, M., Svobodova, K., Owen, J. R., Kemp, D., Côte, C., Arratia-Solar, A., & Valenta, R. K. (2020). The social and environmental complexities of extracting energy transition metals. Nature Communications, 11(1), 4823.
  6. Vidal, J. (2013, December 16). Toxic E-Waste Dumped in Poor Nations, Says United Nations—Our World.
  7. Pacheco-Gutiérrez, L. A., Domínguez-de, M. del C. D., & others. (2007). Uso del agua en la industria minera. Parte 2: Estudio de opciones para reciclar el agua de proceso. Tecnología, Ciencia, Educación, 22(1), 15–29.
  8. Madaka, H. (2022). Resource Use and Water Implications of Material Consumption in Consumer Electronics [Dissertation, Rochester Institute of Technology].
  9. Liu, R., Gailhofer, P., Gensch, C.O., Köhler, A., & Wolff, F. (2019). Impacts of the digital transformation on the environment and sustainability (Service Contract on Future EU Environment Policy, p. 136). Ôko-Institut.
  10. Peña, P. (2021, October 17). Terraforming: Feminism and Technology in the Design of the Anthropocene [Speech Transcript]. Instituto Latinoamericano de Terraformación.
  11. Searcey, D., Forsythe, M., Lipton, E., & Gilbertson, A. (2021, November 20). A Power Struggle Over Cobalt Rattles the Clean Energy Revolution. The New York Times.
  12. Hagan, S. (2022, May 4). Texas Bitcoin Miners Seek Cheap Power, Land and a Place to Stay. Bloomberg.Com.
  13. Roberts, P. (2018, April). This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town. POLITICO Magazine.
  14. Singh, P. (2021, June 24). Bitcoin miners flocked to an upstate New York town for cheap energy—Then it got complicated. CNBC.
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