Is the digital transformation harming our climate?

Overview

At first glance, server farmers may seem a lot more eco-friendly than blast furnaces. But even the fourth Industrial Revolution is leaving behind a huge environmental footprint that we can no longer ignore. As a leading science and technology company, we see it as our responsibility...

Publish Date

16 NOV 2019

Author

Kai Beckmann

At first glance, server farmers may seem a lot more eco-friendly than blast furnaces. But even the fourth Industrial Revolution is leaving behind a huge environmental footprint that we can no longer ignore. As a leading science and technology company, we see it as our responsibility to act in a sustainable manner and to help make the digital transformation more climate-friendly.

Every click burns energy

The music video for “Despacito” set an impressive record in April 2018. It was the first video to exceed five billion views on YouTube. What hardly anyone knows is that on the way to this record, the online streaming of the video required roughly the same amount of power as 40,000 U.S. households in one year. Shockingly high energy consumption if you ask me. Here’s another example: In a study, the Technical University of Munich determined that the cryptocurrency Bitcoin consumes around 46 terawatt hours of electricity per year. This is due to the high computing power required for mining, in other words the generation of bitcoins. This means that the Bitcoin system is
responsible for around 23 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, which is roughly equivalent to the CO2 footprint of the Dominican Republic.

Many people probably do not even know it, but the Internet has impacts on the environment that are not to be underestimated. According to a recent study, information technologies already account for one tenth of the world's total electricity consumption – and the trend is growing. For the year 2030 the researchers expect a share of 20%. That’s because every single click on the network sets servers in motion. A Google search for "Despacito", for example, activates servers in six to eight data centers around the world. 

In addition, we are using more and more end devices in our everyday lives to go online. Aside from laptops and smartphones, our wristwatches and game consoles are now also connected to the Internet. And the trend towards the smart factory is doing its part. More and more companies are equipping their factories with robots and connected production plants and are saving data in the cloud. 

On the other hand, digital technologies have also made our lives a lot more sustainable in many ways – especially in the business world. For instance, today we can often hold business meetings by video conference instead of traveling by car, train or airplane to attend them. In addition, the digital transformation has made the paperless office possible. It is hard to imagine how many trees would have to be cut down to print out the documents on all computers in the world. 

Above all, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) has tremendous potential to further reduce industry's ecological footprint in the future. For example, AI enables a more sustainable use of resources through foresighted production. At Merck, KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, our Performance Materials business sector is planning a new, smart production unit for liquid crystal and OLED materials. The new unit will consist of more than 20 modules that can be individually connected to one another, depending on the production requirement. By optimizing process control, we’ll reduce the material requirement at constant production volumes. 

A double duty 

Yet with our products, we also help customers to shape the digital transformation in a more sustainable way. For instance, our innovative materials for the semiconductor industry enable the manufacture of both increasingly powerful and energy-efficient microchips which are a foundation for Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, cloud computing, etc. In the area of displays, which are ubiquitous in the digital world as the interface between people and computers, we’ve developed an LCD technology specifically for touchscreens that increases the light transmission of the display, thereby lowering power consumption by up to 30%. On top of that, our technology also happens to increase battery life and deliver higher image quality. Apart from specialty chemicals for LCDs, we are also developing materials for particularly energy-efficient OLED technology, which is superbly suited for use in portable devices.  

Technology and sustainability need not be a contradiction. As a society, it’s our responsibility to shape the digital transformation in the most sustainable and environmentally sound way possible. We can do this in three ways: Firstly, by further optimizing the energy efficiency of digital technologies. Secondly, by deploying new technologies, especially for AI, to use resources more wisely. And thirdly, by making greater use of renewable energy. As a company, we are examining the sustainability of our actions at all levels in order to protect the environment as best we can. After all, without a healthy planet, even the smartest technologies will be of little use to us in the future. 

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