This year’s edition of Web Summit held virtually from Lisbon, Portugal saw President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, talk of the 2020s being “Europe’s Digital Decade”. Von der Leyen believes that science and technology have the power to make our lives better and that technology has the power to save lives, as evident with the response to the global pandemic.
The value of EU Tech companies has increased by 50% this year and the EU now has the highest number of AI scientists and more software developers than the US. Digital businesses around the world have experienced a huge spike in popularity as COVID-19 forced everyone to stay inside and buy online. Von der Leyen further promised new public benefits and toted the “Next Generation EU” plan which will involve a €750 billion grant in support of the EU’s economic recovery from this year’s global pandemic. 20% of this grant will go directly to digital investment. This new generation of technology will include spending on a new generation of microprocessors and supercomputers, as well as high speed connections with 5G, 6G and fibre.
The message is clear, the European Commission wants this decade to be a game changing decade of digital advancements, streamlining of laws for digital markets and continuation of free enterprise for generations to come. With a heavy focus on digital technological advancements in the coming years, what does this mean for the future of sustainability and the EU’s goal of net zero by 2050?
The future of green and digital transitions are mutually dependent. Advancements in digital technology can help to create a healthier and more sustainable society globally. The World Economic Forum calculates that digital technologies can directly help reduce global C02 emissions by up to 15%.
The digital sector is also working to drastically reduce its own emissions, which account for 1.4% of all carbon emissions globally, through exponential growth in data performance and taking a strong lead in accelerating demand for 100% renewable energy. Data-driven solutions in energy consumption, manufacturing, land use and more are being advanced through investments from tech giants like Google & Microsoft. Google is working towards offsetting its own carbon footprint with 18 separate agreements to supply Google with electricity from wind and solar projects across the world. Within the next decade, this sector has the opportunity to help cut global emissions in half by 2030. This can be attributed to continuous investment which will see exponential growth in data performance and therefore, growth in sustainability.
Digital technologies can easily be used to gather data, but it’s how this data is used that is most important. Von der Leyen states that 80% of data collected is never used, however some of this data could have a direct and positive impact on global sustainability efforts. Supercomputers are using data to improve the design of wind turbines to maximise power efficiency by studying wind patterns that span hundreds of metres in height across tens of kilometres of territory as well as resolution of airflow over individual turbine blades. Another example lies within the agricultural sector where AI is helping farmers to reduce their use of harmful pesticides, fertilisers and fuel (2). The European Commission is backing all of these developments and initiatives as part of their goals for a more sustainable future. Should Von der Leyen’s vision of a digital future materialise, it would provide Europe with the technology required to reach net zero by 2050.
Investment from the European Commission is just one part of the puzzle. In order for the EU to hit its sustainability target, large-scale public buy-in and cooperation from global tech companies is essential. Companies with influence on public sentiment must work alongside local and global executive organisations to promote sustainable ambitions. Other non-tech companies that have a strong digital presence such as retail giant Patagonia have been actively committed to sustainability for decades, and should serve as an example to other influential corporations. In order for the EU to achieve net zero, the public, government organisations and corporations must stand behind the cause.
Europe has big plans for a dominant digital decade. The advancement of technology and rapid investment in tech this year alone shows the true potential over a ten year period. With further investment in digital technologies globally, sustainability will become more accessible and therefore cheaper. Net-Zero 2050 won’t be achievable without technological advances. Governments and the tech sector alike must invest and work together to create a greener future for all. This decade has the potential to put our world on the right track for a more sustainable future. We must act now, invest and come together globally.