To limit digital pollution, "we must play collectively"

Our clicks have a colossal environmental weight

To limit digital pollution, "we must play collectively"

Our clicks have a colossal environmental weight. If the impact of digital is increasingly documented, there is still a long way to go to raise awareness and change the practices of States, companies and the general public. Vincent Courboulay, lecturer in computer science at La Rochelle University, author of Towards a responsible digital and of L'Archipel des Gafam (Actes Sud), calls for a collective "digital hygiene" to meet the challenges of pollution in this sector. The founder of the Responsible Digital Institute will host a conference, "Eco-designing the tech of the future for a controlled digital impact", on March 9, during the Master Dev France, an event organized by Docaposte, of which Le Point is a partner.

Le Point: The concept of digital pollution is gaining more and more space in public debate. Has society taken hold of this notion?

Vincent Courboulay: Consideration of this concept is evolving at different paces depending on the audience. On the side of decision-makers, things are moving forward, because elected officials have been forced since 2021 by the REEN law (Reduction of the digital environmental footprint) to develop a strategy in favor of responsible digital technology. Companies are driven by the need to transition and consider this topic: if an organization does not show a green commitment, it puts its very existence at risk, as this consideration becomes more important for its employees and clients. Among the general public, opinion is very plural: people aware of ecology raise this question, but a large segment of the population still does not take it into account.

In terms of impact, where does digital compare to other polluting sectors?

It accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions… Not much compared to the transport, food or even clothing sectors. If we put this into perspective, digital is still more polluting than civil aviation. On the other hand, it is important to remember that it has also made it possible to avoid other forms of pollution: with the universal object that is the smartphone, for example, for 10 or 15 years, much less cameras, paper diaries, portable game consoles... In terms of digital services too, with telework, people travel less, and their impact is therefore limited thanks to the use of tools that allow people to work remotely. distance.

What are the main sources of digital pollution today?

The bulk of the impact lies in the manufacture of new devices. An e-mail represents a gram of greenhouse gas emissions, it is nothing compared to the 300 kilograms emitted to build a computer. But, collectively, all these uses and services have a very significant impact, as evidenced, for example, by the 350 billion emails that are sent every day around the world.

The environmental impact of data centers is also very significant, it represents a quarter of the impact of digital as a whole. But we are talking here about fundamental objects, which make it possible to run the system. Blaming data centers on everything tends to disempower digital users, whereas if data centers are filled with YouPorn videos, kittens or crackling fireplaces, it's because of the users themselves. same. A person's computer versus a data center is David versus Goliath, but let's not forget that we are 5 billion users and that, together, our uses have a weight.

That's why you advocate "digital hygiene". What does it consist of ?

The idea is to adopt a reasonable and reasoned behavior in its digital uses. It's like oral hygiene: there is no immediate impact, but problems set in gradually. For digital, these are problems of energy consumption, dependency, turmoil at the heart of the attention economy...

It is a question of ecology, but not only. We are digital cash cows, Big Tech milks us to sell our milk – our data – and maximize their earnings. Citizens must stop accepting to let all their data fly away, they don't know where, on the pretext that they have nothing to hide. We have to educate citizens: privacy is not what we want to hide, but rather what we don't want to show, which does not have to be in the public domain.

In 2018, you created the Responsible Digital Institute: is its objective precisely to raise awareness?

We carry out actions around the understanding of the problem, its measurement, decision support and definition of actions in favor of responsible digital technology. We always want to be concrete, rather than writing white papers or political advocacy. And, when we talk about responsible digital, we are obviously referring to the environment, but also to a whole series of other subjects, such as social, economic or cybersecurity issues. Thinking only through the prism of ecology is like lightening your car to consume less gasoline by removing its airbags, it's never a good idea.

You have recently been appointed to join the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games Ecological Transformation Committee to support its climate and environmental strategy. What jobs do you work on?

The idea is to help the teams reduce their impact in a certain number of sectors, such as food, transport, biodiversity, architecture… And, a great first for the Olympic Games, in the management of their impact digital! This is what I am working on. I apply a principle of pragmatism, since these Games have to be delivered, but that does not prevent us from being ambitious. To do this, I educate the teams, carry out impact measurements and propose concrete solutions and courses of action to be implemented. It's very exciting, the subject is not taken lightly. It even goes back to the level of the International Olympic Committee, where I go to raise awareness, in particular with the technical teams of the next two Olympic Games, in Milan and Los Angeles. This is the beginning of the influence of a subject that has become unavoidable.

THE EVENT NOT TO BE MISSEDMaster Dev France will be held on March 9, in Paris, at the Porte de Versailles exhibition center, pavilion 5.2. On the program: live code competition and conferences led by personalities who make the news from Tech and the world of dev. Visitors will also be able to discover a space dedicated to start-ups and innovation, highlighting “French-style” excellence. The program on