Progress and preservation: Tech industry needs eco equation


As we mark Earth Day today, the drive for technological advancement calls for a mindful approach that weighs innovation against environmental sustainability. — Image by freepik

Not a day goes by without another headline proclaiming the revolutionary potential of new technological advancements.

These bold claims often come with the promise of enhancing our daily lives through innovation. However, the reality differs from the claims made.

As we celebrate Earth Day, it’s important to acknowledge the environmental costs that accompany the development and deployment of technologies.

From the manufacturing processes to the energy consumption of data centres, the tech industry’s innovations have a significant ecological footprint.

In response, many tech companies are actively seeking ways to reduce their environmental impact, endeavouring to marry progress with sustainability.

They invest in renewable energy, improve energy efficiency, and research less harmful materials and processes in an attempt to align their business models with eco-friendly practices.

Current challenges

According to Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation (APU) associate professor Dr Thang Ka Fei, the growth of various technologies has been a double-edged sword.

Thang says that it’s overly simplistic to assume that the environmental benefits of new technologies outweigh their environmental impact. — APUThang says that it’s overly simplistic to assume that the environmental benefits of new technologies outweigh their environmental impact. — APU

“It is overly simplistic to assume that the environmental benefits of new technologies outweigh their environmental impact.

“Technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), IoT (Internet of Things), and EVs (electric vehicles) are fundamentally products or services that require energy consumption and the extraction of raw materials, which can impact the natural habitats of animals and humans throughout their life cycles,” he says.

In 2022, it was estimated that the tech industry as a whole used about 1,183TWh (terawatt-hours) of electricity, which is approximately 4.7% of global demand, based on a report from the World Bank.

This figure dwarfs Malaysia’s electricity usage, which reportedly stood at 181.09TWh the same year, according to data from the green energy think tank Ember.

A separate report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that electricity consumption from data centres, AI, and the cryptocurrency sector could double by 2026.

The World Bank report adds that the ICT industry has a carbon footprint of 567 million tCO2e (tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent), which surpasses Malaysia’s output of 291.07 million tCO2e, as reported in the 2023 Global Carbon Budget.

Thang, who is also the senior head of the school of technology at APU, highlights that there are two sides to many of the up-and-coming technologies in the sector.

“AI enables precise prediction of energy demands and resource utilisation, leading to reduced waste and lower greenhouse gas emissions across sections like manufacturing, agriculture, and power generation.

“However, these technologies also pose challenges and negative impacts that must be addressed for sustainable development.

“The data centres, particularly for AI computation such as training of deep-learning-based models, require long hours of operation and high energy consumption due to the need to power the servers and cool them down to ensure uninterrupted operation.

“Furthermore, the proliferation of AI usage leads to more data centres being constructed to meet the increasing demand,” he says.

Thang adds that the shift towards cloud computing has also driven up demand for data centres, which, by their very nature, consume large amounts of energy and typically rely on fossil fuels, leading to significant greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2022, it was estimated that the tech industry as a whole used about 1,183TWh (terawatt-hours) of electricity, which is approximately 4.7% of global demand, based on a report from the World Bank. — Image by freepikIn 2022, it was estimated that the tech industry as a whole used about 1,183TWh (terawatt-hours) of electricity, which is approximately 4.7% of global demand, based on a report from the World Bank. — Image by freepik

Additionally, the disposal of ewaste becomes an issue when components from cloud computing are decommissioned and replaced to cope with increasing workloads.

On the topic of electric vehicles gaining traction in the automotive industry, Thang acknowledges their potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting reliance on fossil fuels. However, he emphasises the importance of proceeding with caution in their adoption.

“Despite these advantages, criticisms of EVs often centre around the production of their batteries, a critical component. EV batteries contain raw materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite.

“Improper extraction of these materials can destroy natural habitats, cause water pollution, and be subject to potential human rights abuses such as child labour or poor labour practices,” he says.

Even going fully into renewable energy is not without drawbacks.

“Solar and wind power is known as clean energy, which directly means that power is produced without burning fossil fuels, hence zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“However, large-scale solar power and wind farms require significant amounts of land, which may lead to deforestation and loss of habitat for living beings,” he says, adding that there is also evidence of bird and bat deaths from collisions with wind turbines due to changes in air pressure caused by the spinning turbines.

The carbon code

Considering these downsides, one might question the value of technological change. Thang, however, emphasises that to mitigate such impacts, a thorough evaluation of technologies is essential prior to their implementation.

“To achieve a truly sustainable lifecycle for these technologies and related products and services, key stakeholders such as government bodies, NGOs (non-governmental organisations), and the public must collaborate and pool their resources and efforts.

“In short, while the integration of AI and IoT in environmental sustainability efforts offers tremendous opportunities, it demands a holistic approach that considers the broader societal impact, economic viability, workforce readiness, and ethical considerations.

“By engaging all stakeholders and addressing these critical dimensions, we can maximise the benefits of technology-driven sustainability initiatives while mitigating potential challenges and risks,” he says.

From the manufacturing processes to the energy consumption of data centres, the tech industry’s innovations have a significant ecological footprint. — Image by rawpixel.com on FreepikFrom the manufacturing processes to the energy consumption of data centres, the tech industry’s innovations have a significant ecological footprint. — Image by rawpixel.com on Freepik

Thang highlights various companies that have taken significant strides in technology-driven environmental sustainability. Tesla, for instance, has garnered attention for its gigafactories, which utilise solar panels and adopt stringent measures to limit waste production, water usage, and energy consumption. Tech giant Google, on the other hand, has committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

In Malaysia, the government supports such efforts by providing tax incentives through the Green Investment Tax Allowance (GITA) and the Green Income Tax Exemption (GITE) and encouraging further investment into environmentally friendly businesses with the Green Technology Financing Scheme (GTFS).

Additionally, Khazanah Nasional is in the midst of creating a green investment platform aimed at drawing domestic and international capital to bolster industries like renewable energy, green building technologies, energy efficiency, and sustainable mobility ecosystems.

Thang believes Malaysia is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, as outlined in the Twelfth Malaysia Plan.

This is supported by the government’s targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions and its drive to encourage government-linked companies (GLCs) to uphold its sustainability objectives.

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