The Tech Paradox:
Climate Change vs. Digital Innovation

July 4, 2023

What is the carbon cost of an email? And how are digital solutions tackling the climate crisis? During Collision 2023, Foresight CEO, Jeanette Jackson, got real about the pros and cons of digital innovation as we accelerate a global net zero transition.

What is the Tech Paradox?

As we fast-track towards a digital world, it is crucial to understand our online carbon footprint, how our digital behaviour contributes to climate change, and explore ways to minimize our digital environmental impact. 

Andrew Feenberg, Canada Research Chair in the Philosophy of Technology at Simon Fraser University studied what he termed the Ten Paradoxes of Technology, looking at how Newton’s Third Law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — applies to technology. Through this, and studies like it, it’s clear that while technology will provide us with the tools to rapidly decarbonize our economy, it is, at the same time, rapidly becoming a large carbon source and environmental burden.

Jeanette Jackson, CEO of Foresight Canada presenting The Tech Paradox: Climate Change vs. Digital Innovation masterclass at Collision 2023.
Jeanette Jackson, CEO of Foresight Canada presenting The Tech Paradox: Climate Change vs. Digital Innovation masterclass at Collision 2023. Kaitie Unwin

How is technology helping the fight against climate change?

There is no doubt that digital innovation is playing a critical role in driving us towards our decarbonization goals. Digital advancements like machine learning, automation, blockchain and other tools are needed to reduce carbon emissions in every sector. At Foresight, we’re lucky to have a front row seat to see how these innovations applied across every sector that we work in. Here are a few examples:

  • Machine learning can increase efficiency to optimize water treatment, energy generation, building energy efficiency, industrial processes, and agriculture.
  • Blockchain technology can enable better tracking and tracing of materials to ensure sustainable sourcing in manufacturing and create more sustainable supply chains.
  • Digital twins can optimize infrastructure asset management.
  • Digital sensors can streamline efficiencies in waste management.

These are just a few of the ways we’re seeing digital innovations make a huge impact on the path to net zero.

How is technology hindering the fight against climate change? 

So, technology is clearly a major factor in reducing emissions across all industries, but what negative impact does digital innovation have on the climate? 

To quantify this, let’s look at the carbon cost of an email. In his book, The Carbon Footprint of Everything, Professor Mike Berners-Lee estimates that globally, emails could account for as much as 150 million tonnes CO2e in one year. To break it down further, a normal email has a footprint equivalent to 0.3 g of CO2 emissions, and this can rise to 50g with the addition of a large attachment. Consider now, the impact if everything is digitized — the computing needed, the energy cost, the materials cost, the waste produced? Not to mention the carbon footprint of large data centres and the abundance of electronic waste that accumulates every year (over 50 million metric tonnes). 

When we look at the big picture, it’s clear that there is a major cost associated with the transformation to a digitized world.

How can you minimize your digital carbon footprint?

Of course, if we are going to have any hope of reaching net zero, we absolutely need to embrace the digital innovations that have the power to get us there. So, what can we do to minimize the negative impact of these critical climate technologies? Here are a few suggestions: 

1. Adopt a paradox mindset: In a 2021 podcast from INSEAD, Ella Miron-Spektor, Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour, suggests paradoxes can stimulate creativity in the brain, enhance problem solving, and increase resilience. Adopting a paradox mindset as it applies to digital innovation means considering the carbon footprint of technology as an opportunity (rather than a roadblock) for innovation and productivity.

2. Be mindful of your own digital carbon footprint: 

  • Reduce email size by compressing images and avoiding large HTML elements
  • Send links to files instead of attachments
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters you no longer read
  • Make the most out of your virtual meetings (short and only those required)

3. Educate and train colleagues and partners on ways to offset emissions: 

  • Inform all teams about the reality of the carbon footprint of digital activities
  • Consider offsetting your digital footprint with carbon credits or similar
  • Take advantage of clean transportation alternatives whenever possible (walking, cycling, public transit and carpooling to work or cutting back on travel)

4. Download the slide deck from our Collision Masterclass, The Tech Paradox: Climate Change vs. Digital Innovation and use it as a tool in creating a paradox mindset for this opportunity in your own life, work, and business.