Why we need a planetary health star rating for apps

  • With more than 7.5 billion people forecast to be connected via online services by 2030, the contribution of digital technology to global greenhouse gas emissions is likely to increase over the next decade.
  • Reducing the digital carbon footprint should not be the sole responsibility of consumers.
  • Technology companies need to become more proactive to make the environmental impact of online services visible.

Technological advancement, fueled by the fourth industrial revolution and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has dramatically changed the way we live and work. Digital technology, used correctly, promises to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, from creating more efficient transportation to attending meetings online.

But there is one hidden costs Use digital technology. Every digital interaction, whether it’s crunching algorithms or streaming video content, is supported by a physical infrastructure. And this physical infrastructure needs energy to operate.

Increasingly Public pressure and global efforts like COP26 have a positive impact on the sustainability agendas of digital technology companies. Many of the world’s largest technology companies like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft have committed to achieving the climate goals.

However, two issues need to be addressed before time runs out: the size associated with the rapid growth of Internet usage and the lack of transparency about the impact of consumer-facing online services.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred internet usage and led to a Increase in video streaming. Even if the lockdowns come to an end Remote work will likely stay here, and more and more people will use more and more online services.

As the time we spend online, the physical infrastructure grows too on which online services are operated. The environmental impact of a single google search or send an email may be small, but with an appreciated 4.7 billion internet users, it all adds up.

The contribution of digital technology to global greenhouse gas emissions is estimated range from 1.4% to 5.9%. In comparison, all of commercial aviation put together accounts for about 2.4%. And those are numbers from before the pandemic. Emissions are likely to increase with the number of Internet users projected to achieve Over 7.5 billion by 2030 and more industries and companies are turning to artificial intelligence, blockchain and other data-intensive technologies.

Global growth in internet users with an average annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6%.

Image: CISCO

A well-researched report on the environmental impact of streaming video concluded that while the impact is less than originally reported, it is becoming more and more likely that the growing demand for data will outweigh the efficiency gains.

Projections of emissions from digital systems and the rate of 1.5 ° C agreed by the technology and telecommunications industries.

Image: The Royal Society

Data centers, a major contributor to digital carbon emissions, have benefited from advances in computer technology and Strategies to reduce your energy consumption. However, due to the growing demand for data, their power consumption is lower expected to grow significantly by 2030.

Power consumption trends (in TWh) for data centers between 2020 and 2030.

Image: Letters from engineering and applied sciences

Lack of transparency in digital consumption

There are many suggestions for what consumers can do reduce their digital carbon footprint. It is true that we as consumers can and should do our part, e.g. B. keep our devices longer and listen to music on audio-only platforms such as Spotify instead of YouTube. But these proposals put the responsibility entirely on the consumer. It’s a memory of how BP popularized the term “carbon footprint” Around 20 years ago it was suggested that climate change was caused by individuals rather than companies.

We must prevent this story from repeating itself in the digital technology sector. The tech industry has to live up to its responsibilities. While companies are pursuing climate goals, the environmental impact of the services that billions of consumers use every day to stream content, connect with each other, store data in the cloud or play online video games remains invisible.

Other industries can provide guidance on how to address transparency in the digital technology sector. In the fashion industry, consumer-facing services are like Good with you rate brands on their practices and commitment to sustainability. Many countries require or require the display of an energy efficiency class for household appliances. The EU has one Energy Labeling Policy from A to G. In Australia and New Zealand this is done in the form of a 6-star label. Australia and New Zealand have one too Rating system for health stars for foods that, as a simple 5-star rating, represent a number of underlying factors.

These rating systems help consumers make purchasing decisions. It is important that they give the companies the responsibility to calculate the effects of the products they sell and to make them visible.

Show the effects of digital technology

What if every online service, from Netflix and YouTube to Zoom and TikTok, has a rating that makes the underlying environmental impact visible to users? The rating could be based on data from initiatives such as DIMPACT (which Netflix recently joined) who develop tools for calculating CO2 emissions from digital consumption.

The problem is that there is no economic incentive for online service providers. But technology companies like Apple, who have control over platforms and app ecosystems, have a unique opportunity to drive positive change – beyond their own practices – by implementing a platform-wide rating system. Like Australia’s and New Zealand’s health star ratings for food, any app on the app store could choose to display its rating. Following the example of Good On You, evaluation could have multiple dimensions. For example, it could show the energy consumption for the provision of the service, the environmental rating of the data centers used by the service, and even factors such as the work practices involved in creating and maintaining the app (Kampf modern slavery in technology).

Business leaders in the mining, metals and manufacturing industries are changing their approach to integrating climate issues into complex supply chains.

The forum’s mining and metals blockchain initiative, created to accelerate an industry solution for supply chain transparency and environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) requirements, has released a unique proof of concept to reduce emissions traced along the value chain using distributed ledger technology.


Developed in collaboration with industry experts, it not only tests the technological feasibility of the solution, but also examines the complexity of the supply chain dynamics and sets requirements for future data usage.

In doing so, the proof of concept responds to demands from stakeholders to create visibility and accountability from the mine to the market.

The World Economic Forum’s mining and metals community is a high-level group of like-minded individuals committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of their industry and society. Read more about your work and how you can get involved in our Impact Story.

Let’s face it, not many people will stop watching Netflix even if the service’s environmental impact is made transparent. But a rating system would shift responsibility from the consumer to the company. In order to improve its rating, the company must actively invest in environmental practices. This could include moving to more environmental data centers and giving users the ability to make environmental choices like watching standard definition movies, thereby reducing emissions by an estimated up to 86% compared to high definition.

Many of the digital consumption practices that contribute to global emissions are deliberate. It is time for the tech industry to consider the environmental impact of these design choices.


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