Will new technologies ever clean up the planet?

Microsoft is doing everything it can to “save” the planet. In the middle of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Brad Smith, president of the digital giant, made the big announcement at Station F in Paris on Wednesday. In addition to the goal of achieving carbon neutrality in ten years and offsetting its cumulative impact since its inception in 1975, Microsoft announced the Green Startup Accelerator, in partnership with Station F, Ademe and Capgemini among others. The acceleration program will support about ten European start-ups working to reduce and offset carbon emissions. Will the new technologies of the future be able to clean up the planet? In a word, are we saved?

“If we want to save the planet, we will need technologies that do not yet exist,” said Brad Smith. There will be technologies of the future, companies of the future, and industries of the future that don’t exist yet.” And the president of Microsoft identified four technologies that need to be developed: green hydrogen, green jet fuel, energy storage, and capturing CO2 from the air. “Today, digital technologies account for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide,” said Kom Perper, Director of Sustainability and Transformation at Microsoft France. The air sector accounts for half of the digital sector’s emissions. If we represent 4% of emissions, then 96% of emissions are non-digital,” he continued.

Systemic crisis

Microsoft’s approach sees digital as the solution for the remaining 96%. “Once everything has been measured [grâce à l’outil de mesure sur lequel planche Microsoft], the subject will be downsizing and compensation, Kom Perper said. We need to be ahead of these milestones to drive innovation in reduction and compensation. We realized that apart from replanting trees, there is not much to do.” On paper, Microsoft’s profession of faith sells dreams. We would even allow ourselves to fantasize that digital players, the great saviors of the future, will allow us to keep global warming below 2°C. It’s good, we can sleep peacefully… But Microsoft seems to be forgetting that the planet is going through a systemic crisis.

“It is dangerous that today’s technology players are leading a discussion focused on greenhouse gases,” notes Frederic Bordage, author of the book Strive for digital sobriety (Southern Acts). However, 23 major environmental crises are linked to digital technologies. Humanity has 23 holes in the bottom of the boat, and if we focus on one hole, we will drown.”

In addition to the carbon footprint, there is acidification of water and soil, eutrophication of the aquatic environment, photochemical oxidation, depletion of abiotic resources… “Although humanity, thanks to technology, could significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. , this does not solve the systemic problem associated with the environment,” he continues. “We can’t just wait for technology to ‘save’ the planet, we have to change how we use it,” adds Isabelle Albert, author of the book. Technology is green (G9+ Institute). There are always two sides of the same coin. On the other hand, new technologies allow us to change our behavior as well as to understand our impact on the environment.”

Digital, critical resource

On the tail side we find the rebound effect. The new technology creates new needs, which are such that the technological solution no longer compensates for the environmental effect. “For example, they say that the mall saves the postman’s car. But in fact, we have never seen so many couriers in Paris as we do today. Letters are getting smaller and parcels are always more because digital platforms like Amazon, Deliveroo have created new consumer habits. Digital technologies do not replace life, they add to life,” journalist Guillaume Pitron described when his book came out. Digital hell, travel for a like (Les Liens qui liberant), last September.

You have to go through the second one. “Let’s use digital technologies for calculations, climate simulations, bypassing scanners to indulge ourselves,” continues Frederic Bordage. It’s great if it allows us to cut greenhouse gas emissions to do what we can’t do otherwise. Digital technologies are the most important non-renewable resource that will be exhausted in thirty years. [elle repose sur l’extraction de ressources limitées comme des métaux critiques et des terres rares]. The topic is how to save the figure. According to the founder of Green IT, which brings together independent experts in the field of responsible digital technologies, we should associate low-tech with high-tech and, of course, shake up our behavior.

The good news is that changing our consumer habits requires awareness. However, according to an OpinonWay survey by Microsoft France, 55% of French people say they are personally concerned about digital pollution, with increased concern among young people and working people. Although the American giant starts from afar, it remains one of the most dedicated technology players in solving environmental problems. And he must prove it again in the coming years. It remains to find a way to consume (much) less.