The troubled promise: how to rethink digitalisation for a post-growth future 

The EU’s twin digital and green transition comes with a catch. Beyond the shiny facade of efficiency and speed are the growing ICT footprint and unexpected rebound effects. A different approach to digitalisation could help us tackle its negative impacts and harness digital tools to foster a sustainable, post-growth economy. 

Andreas Budiman reports.

Digitalisation has come with a grand promise of reducing carbon emissions and optimising every area of life. Yet the reality is a mixed blessing.  

The new report suggests digital technologies are neither good nor bad but depend on how and who uses them. And we can use them to facilitate a future beyond growth. This, however, will require changing our approach to digitalisation from the ground up. 

Wishful by design 

The promises of digital technology are seductive: efficient robots, AI-powered logistics and smart farming seem to make waste a thing of the past. COVID-19 has led to another presumed leap: reduced transport emissions driven by meetings going virtual.  

Recent studies paint a different picture. Efficiency gains are often compensated by rebound effects. A smart thermostat might make us feel comfortable about increasing the room’s temperature by two degrees. And upon switching from cow milk to oat milk, we could end up drinking a few extra coffees a week.  

The result is rarely a win-win: a recent study in German firms shows an almost negligible impact of digitalisation on overall energy efficiency. Other studies have highlighted that video conferencing has replaced travelling at scale only under strict lockdowns, and more efficient cloud services have led to growth in demand. 

Digital tools can also prompt us to consume much more than before. Online stores make it easier to buy things, and digital maps encourage us to drive longer and more, further aggravating the negative impact of ICT on nature.  

Today, ICT accounts for up to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Its share could rise to 13% by 2030. 

Digitalisation could, however, also help tackle the issues it currently reinforces.  

The dawn of digital sufficiency 

According to the recent OECD report, European economies need to learn to operate without growth while meeting the goals of sustainability, wellbeing and economic resilience. Digitalisation could help move in this direction by championing sufficiency, a basic building block of the doughnut economy

Digital alternatives to physical products and services are increasingly mainstream: e-banking, e-commerce and e-books, e-medicine, and the list could go on. Adopting sufficiency policies across the e-service sector could help enhance energy intensity and value propositions while contributing to digital inclusion. 

We can also use digital technology to become prosumers by generating and sharing solar energy via smart grids within energy cooperatives. In this context, digitalisation provides access to knowledge for developing subsistence and resilience practices, making people less dependent on market fluctuations and more connected within their communities.   

Sharing and reusing are other examples where sufficiency paired with digitalisation make sense. Rather than owning a drill, a bike or even a wardrobe, we can rent and return them when they are no longer needed. Instead of buying a new chair or lamp, we can pick from thousands of used ones online. With the new digital tools and platforms available to us, all of this now requires less money, time and effort.  

We can also make the products we do buy last longer by sharing knowledge, such as through online instructions on repairing goods and opting for items that are easier to repair or upgrade in the first place. Perhaps, a replaceable battery is all we need to extend the life of our old smartphone for another year.  

From a broader perspective, new consumption patterns must be paired with changing our approach to products across their lifecycle. The EU needs to show stronger ambition by at least banning planned obsolescence and the destruction of unsold items

Using digitalisation to facilitate the doughnut economy has the potential to be a real win-win, but we need appropriate policies to make this tandem work. 

Digital economies beyond growth 

Well-designed policies can help make digitalisation a tool for sustainability, wellbeing and economic resilience. Employment and social security are essential institutions that digitalisation can impact at scale. 

Today, we need growth to create jobs while unemployment reduces tax revenue. The fact that digitalisation increases the dependency of employment on growth often remains neglected, as the discussion focuses on the impacts of digitalisation and automation on jobs, with recent estimates being far from catastrophic.  

Instead, we need to shift the focus towards how digitalisation could be used to enable and promote future-fit work and a strong welfare state. Making jobs less dependent on growth would require changing the relative prices of energy and natural resources compared to labour, making pollution and resource use far less of a free lunch.

Reducing taxes on low incomes can be balanced by financing social security from environmental tax revenues and encouraging further energy and resource efficiency and sufficiency advances, which digitalisation could support. 

Since digital sufficiency practices are often in the hands of large companies, the people behind digital solutions will be crucial. We need actors such as cooperatives to build platforms that don’t maximise profits but prioritise decent pay, income security and the right to log off.  

Saving the promise of digitalisation 

The digital future is not without compromise, but shifting its focus from growth to sufficiency and wellbeing can help us get digitalisation right.  

Tailored policies could enable sectoral efficiency and sufficiency measures using digital tools to facilitate the shift from cars to public transport, support water sufficiency or facilitate more transparent supply chains.  

Farmers could prioritise reduced fertiliser use and enhanced biodiversity instead of maximising labour productivity. Digitalisation could also help enhance educational opportunities and employment within sectors that contribute to human wellbeing. 

Another promising arena is using digital tools to make sustainable living easier, whether it be saving food or reducing your plastic footprint. Accessible environmental data, such as open maps on water stress and pollution levels, and online databases of environmental conflicts, make the digital realm ever more useful for civil society.   

Digital solutions should be designed and used in ways that substitute physical items and support an overall reduction in consumption. And demand for raw materials brought about by digitalisation must be balanced by managing the growing ICT footprint and material intensity of our lifestyles. 

Making digital technology a game-changer will require unlearning old skills, such as craving the newest smartphone model. This will become easier as buying refurbished items or repairing old ones gains wider acceptability. Video conferencing could be an amazing tool if it ultimately does replace unnecessary travel. Managing all those levers won’t be easy, and even the net zero digital economy will require sufficient resources and energy to produce and power the new sustainable infrastructure.   

Digitalisation foremost requires a careful and responsible approach. We need policies and institutions to align digitalisation with broader social and environmental goals. The shift in direction can make digitalisation a strong force for deep sustainability transformations beyond growth. 

Read the full report to learn more. The report has been developed by the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF) within the project “Digitalization for Sustainability – Science in Dialogue” (D4S) in cooperation with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).