9.1 Digitalization and ecological justice (Intro)

Taking Control, Making a Difference Sessions 9.1 Digitalization and ecological justice (Intro)

The rapid expansion of digital technologies has made a big, bad ecological impact.

Digital devices and related infrastructure consume vast amounts of energy and natural resources, contributing to climate change and threatening the lives of already vulnerable peoples. It is estimated that digital technologies account for as much as 10% of our energy consumption. (Source: European Union, a economic and political union among 27 countries in Europe).

Data centers, the home of specialized computers that can deliver data to others through a network, require massive amounts of energy to stay cool and keep running. The appetite for new devices, compounded by planned obsolescence and difficulty in getting devices repaired, leads to a mountain of toxic e-waste, which is often sent illegally to poor countries.

The mining of raw materials required for digital devices, including cobalt, tungsten, and gold, often involves destructive practices like deforestation, water pollution, and the destruction of natural habitats.

Looking at these issues through the lens of digital justice, we must advocate for ecologically sustainable solutions that consider the impact of digital technologies on both people and the planet.



After this session you will be able to:

  • Understand the ecological impact of digital technologies.
  • Explain some of the ways digitalization causes environmental harm.
  • Take steps to advocate for sustainable digital technology development and use.


Carbon Footprint

Carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), emitted directly or indirectly during the lifecycle of digital technologies, like smartphones, computers, and data centers. This measurment also accounts for energy consumption during the manufacturing, shipping, and disposal of digital devices, contributing to climate change. The Restart project calculated that the average smartphone creates about 55 kilos of carbon emissions in its manufacturing, or the equivalent of 26 weeks’ laundry. (Source: The Restart project is a registered charity in the UK dedicated to extending the lifespan of personal electronics).

Energy Consumption

The rapid adoption of digital technologies has led to a corresponding rapid growth in energy consumption. As mentioned above, data centres that power the internet and cloud services, consume vast amounts of electricity, including from non-renewable resources. Some estimates suggest that the internet, including data centers, networks, and personal devices, consumes about 1-2% of global electricity. Video streaming, cloud computing, and generative AI, are only pushing this higher. Data centers alone use as much energy as some small countries. (Source: International Energy Agency is an autonomous international agency established under the framework of the OECD).


E-waste, or electronic waste, is not just regular garbage. Discarded digital devices and other electronics, create significant health hazards due to improper disposal and underdeveloped recycling infrastructure and processes. E-waste often contains lead, mercury, and cadmium, which can seep into soild and water. This poses serious health risks to ecosystems and communities. Only about 20% of e-waste is recycled properly, with the remainder often being improperly disposed of in landfills or shipped to developing countries. (Source: The World Health Organization, the United Nations agency for international public health).


Our digital world demands mining and resource extraction, including lithium and cobalt for use in batteris, rare earth elements for use in hard drives, and precious metals like gold for use in circuit boards. These, and other metals, are mined throughout the world from Australia and China to Argentina and DR Congo. The mining required for digital devices contributes to a number of problems. Children are exploited to mine in hazardous conditions. Many adult workers are also exposed to unsafe conditions. The profits from resource extraction also fund armed groups and perpetuate political instability. Indigenous communities often bear the brunt of negative impacts from resource extraction due to their close ties to the land and reliance on natural resources for their livelihoods and cultural practices.


    The environmental problems created by digital technologies are no mystery. Tech companies agressively market the latest-and-greatest devices, while they stop updating older models. Planned obsolescence is a common business strategy, where products are designed to have a limited lifespan and become outdated quickly. This also promotes a culture of constant upgrading, leading to the unnecessary accumulation of electronic devices. These effects are magnified by artificial intelligence, which drives people to buy more through targeted advertising, dynamic pricing, and social media content.


    Now that you have the big picture about digitalization and ecological justice, we’ll turn to some experts in the area to help you dig deeper. Click “Complete Lesson” to head to the next part of this session.