Headline: Thoughts on the Digital Agenda of the Federal Ministry of Environment

"We must ensure that algorithms are compliant with environmental standards", argued Federal Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze.
"We must ensure that algorithms are compliant with environmental standards", argued Federal Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze. Shutterstock/kingaroy2017

The issue of digitalisation and sustainable development has – finally! – reached a wider public. When IASS launched a research project on digitalisation five years ago, only a few researchers were concerned about the relationship between the digital transition and sustainability. However, the number of publications and events on this topic has increased noticeably, especially in the last year. In April of this year, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) then presented its flagship report entitled "Towards our Common Digital Future". Just a few weeks later at the annual re:publica conference the duo of digitalisation and sustainability was already inseparable. There, the Federal Minister of the Environment, Svenja Schulze, presented a green paper outlining a digital policy agenda for the environment.

Now, this is not a cause for euphoria. The Federal Environment Minister's paper might, however, be a prelude to politicians finally devoting more attention to these two major challenges in unison; so far, sustainability has only appeared in minute doses within the German Government’s Digital Agenda. In ten 'theses' expounded over eight pages, the Federal Ministry of Environment (BMU) lays out a potpourri of considerations on how digitalisation could be placed at the service of sustainability. Without going into every detail, this article looks at what the paper says about four key issues – and what it fails to say.

1) Direct environmental impacts of digital technologies

We may define a direct impact on the environment as the ecological footprint of the development, production, use and disposal of digital technologies. This is not only about hardware, but also about software. In this sense, the paper proposes criteria for resource-efficient software and a quality seal for environmentally friendly AI. It also deals with the expansion of the EU Eco-Design Directive and the need for a new European IT Design Directive that might unite resource efficiency, a right to repair and data sufficiency. At the same time, the Ministry wants to review national and European legislation to work out how better to prevent the illegal export of electronic waste to Africa.

These are all important issues for limiting the environmental footprint of digital technologies. Leaving aside the fact that there is a lot of room for interpretation here (for example, how exactly does the Ministry define "environmentally friendly AI"?), we need to look beyond considerations of efficiency in design and production. The right to repair already hints that we need to develop a more sufficient way of dealing with digital technologies. From a sustainability perspective, this issue deserved a lot more attention. Moreover, digital technologies will not become more sustainable as long as, for example, the production of energy and the extraction of rare earth metals and other raw materials – much of it in the Global South – take a high toll on people and the environment. Measures to contain negative immediate environmental impacts must therefore take into account the entire supply chain of digital technologies while also addressing the wider dimension through global policy.

2) Use of digital technologies for the environment

The green paper outlines at two levels how the use of digital technologies can make a contribution to the protection of the environment: on the one hand as an "enabler" to make, for example, transport, industrial production and energy generation (keyword: energy transition) more efficient and thus more sustainable. To this end, the Ministry announces, among other things, the promotion of 50 lighthouse projects and support for eco-innovative start-ups. Closely linked to this is the second level, which comprises the use of digital solutions in the collection and use of environmental data; for example, in monitoring biodiversity. This would support not only farmers, but also law enforcement officials in their efforts to protect the environment. A real highlight is the announcement that an environmental data cloud is to be developed over the next few years. 

However, this field of possibilities lacks detail in the paper. One would like to know more about the cloud and how the environmental agencies should be "made ready" for it – and above all what timeframe the BMU has in mind for this. The green paper also contains scant information on how to tackle issues that fall under the remit of other ministries – above all changes to transport and energy systems. This need not come as a surprise, since the details intended to be filled in later. It is to be hoped that the paper will provide an impetus for dialogue with those other ministries leading to the development of concrete activities and measures. But here, too, it is imperative that the contribution of digitisation to greater sustainability is not limited to efficiency gains.

3) Governance for sustainable digitisation

At its outset, the paper places digitalisation alongside globalisation and climate change as a key challenge to be tackled at national, European and global levels. It also points out that digitalisation raises new questions with regard to the future distribution of political and economic power and calls for a trend reversal in digitalisation so that it does not – as the WBGU warns in its report – become an accelerant for economic, social and ecological crises. At the international level, the Ministry would therefore like to bring the topic of digitalisation and sustainability more into the climate conferences and plans to place it on the European agenda during Germany’s EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2020.

The paper, however, lacks detail on how the mammoth task of sustainable digitalisation should be tackled at national level. It calls for the Federal Government’s implementation strategy for digital change to be subject to a climate impact assessment. However, sustainability, as a downstream test criterion, could easily become the icing on the cake of the digital strategy rather than its main ingredient. In addition, the entire government is called upon to ensure that what the paper calls a smart regulatory framework can emerge to give digitalisation its goal and direction. It will be interesting to see whether and how the ministries react to the environmental policy digital agenda and integrate the issue of sustainability into their strategies. The question of which forms of governance are needed to find good and socially viable solutions to this complex issue was unanswered.

4) Capacity building for sustainable development

Finally, the paper addresses at various points the capacities needed to advance more sustainable digitalisation: more education (including more sustainability education for future IT professionals), more research, and more innovation. Notably, two new institutions are discussed: an innovation agency for the development of "digital-social solutions to sustainability problems" and a new research institute for digitalisation and sustainability.

The value or otherwise of setting up a new research institute could be debated ad nauseam . However, the need for a clear research agenda is beyond debate: this is absolutely necessary in order to make the best use of money and minds in researching sustainable digitalisation. The path to this research agenda will also be crucial: How and by whom will the pressing questions of our "common digital future" be identified? Yet, the key point paper contains few specifics on possible research approaches, for example as part of the recently announced joint research agenda with the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). It becomes clear, however, that this will not only be about technical questions and solutions, but also about the development of new socio-ecological models for the future of society. It is precisely this question that first needs to be broached in order to discuss the framework conditions and structures that researchers will need in order to produce robust findings.

Much could still be said about the paper, but we can conclude with a brief summation. The wide range of digitalisation and sustainability issues it touches upon shows that the Ministry is (and hopefully will continue to be) aware of the current academic debate in this area. This broad sweep can, however, also become a problem, if this ample and colourful bouquet produces only miniscule activities (keyword: hackathons) and no coherent, inter-departmental strategy emerges to guide digitalisation for sustainable development. To get there, we need a lively, critical and often contentious exchange about what we understand by digitalisation for sustainable development and how we hope to actively shape it.

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