Digitalisation and natural resources

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Digitalisation relies on resources – in this case, data transfer requires cable material and energy
Source: Pixelnest / Fotolia

Digitalisation is increasingly affecting all aspects of our lives. However, its impact on the natural resource demand has not been sufficiently examined, yet. The UBA research project ‘Digitalisation and natural resources’ applies simulation models to analyse the resource intensity of the digital transformation in Germany with the aim of identifying ways for an environmentally sound development.

More and more aspects of our private and professional everyday life are becoming digital. This change offers enormous potential for the economy, society, and the environment – new products and services are created through digitalisation, industrial processes become more efficient, and, ultimately, resources can be conserved. However, hardly any investigations have been carried out so far on how the advancing digitalisation itself affects the demand for energy and natural resources, for example copper, plastics, special metals or rare earths, as well as its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

These issues raise several research questions: To what extent does digitalisation cause increased resource requirements, for example in the production of new, short-lived end-user devices, of the rather long-lasting network infrastructures, or in the energy supply required for their operation? What effects does digitalisation have on the consumer behaviour? How can mostly national legislators ensure that globally distributed digital services are operated in an environmentally friendly manner? How can future development paths for digitalisation and digital applications be designed in a resource-efficient and resource-saving way? And how can the overall resource intensity be kept as low as possible?

Analysis of the resource intensity of the digital transformation in Germany

The German Environment Agency seeks to investigate these and other questions through the research project ‘Digitalisation and Natural Resources (DigiRess)’ by analysing the resource intensity of the digital transformation in Germany.

DigiRess starts out with a systematic review of the state of knowledge in the field of resource consumption triggered by the digital transformation. Subsequently, precise system boundaries regarding digitalisation and its components are developed to be able to examine this ‘system of digitalisation’ in more detail in further steps.

By using a model of the German national economy (macroeconometric input-output model), the current raw material intensity of the digital transformation is examined both for individual economic sectors and for the national economy as a whole. Intermediate products of digitalisation that might not be exclusively manufactured in Germany are taken into account by examining international value chains. The model is then used to simulate potential future development pathways of the digital transformation up to the year 2060. These ‘potential futures’ differ, for example, in terms of the development of production processes, consumer demand, or energy sources used.

The resource intensity (including greenhouse gas intensity) of the digital transformation is estimated and modelled along global supply chains for both, the current situation and the examined ‘potential futures’. In addition to this more holistic investigation, life cycle assessments of specific products and services are examined within ten case studies. Examples of such products and services may include smartphones, internet routers, or servers for online trading platforms.

The results from the simulations and case studies are used by DigiRess to identify actions and policy recommendations for a resource-conserving development of digitalisation. In this way, DigiRess aims to give practical advice to decision-makers in politics and research on how a sustainable, environmentally friendly and resource-conserving shaping of digitalisation could be made possible.

The project is being carried out by a consortium consisting of Ramboll Germany GmbH, the Institute of Economic Structures Research (GWS), the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems IAIS, and the German Institute for Standardization e.V. (DIN).

DigiRess started in 2020 and will initially last until autumn 2023. The research project is being carried out on behalf of the German Environment Agency as part of the Departmental Research Plan (ReFoPlan) 2020 of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

Research project ‘Digitalisation and Natural Resources - Analysis of the Resource Intensity of the Digital Transformation in Germany’ (DigiRess)
Duration: 2020 - 2023
Project No.: FKZ 3720 31 101 0
Contractors: Ramboll Germany GmbH, Institute of Economic Structures Research (GWS), Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems IAIS, German Institute for Standardization e.V. (DIN)