Since we have become aware of the scale and complexity of the environmental crisis, many buzzwords have appeared that gradually identified an innovation that promised to be redemptive, or at least to provide a more substantial contribution to the solution for the problematic relationship between humans and the "rest of nature".

Over time, we have accumulated a vocabulary of definitions, formulas, acronyms identifying possible magic buttons to push to launch the process that would bring us back into balance with the earth's ecosystem.
One of these current mantras is called dematerialisation, which is the idea that the lifestyle, wellbeing and prosperity we are used to can be maintained without compromising the resources essential for our survival.
By using fewer material resources for the same services or goods provided.
Using less, or not using any at all; dematerialising until we remove materials altogether.
And where do we find this magic button, if not on the keyboards of our computers, then multiplied on other devices?
What has made it possible to imagine dematerialising the economy (a strategy that goes together with another mantra, "decoupling" economic growth from growth in consumption of resources) is in large part the transfer of activities based on physical media to digital media.
From material to data. From material to nothing, then?
Of course not.
The constant expansion of digitalisation (today the number of internet users has surpassed 4.1 billion) has not stopped climate-changing emissions from growing, if we except the temporary slowdown caused by the pandemic (-6.4% after decades of unstoppable growth).

The same thing can be said of the consumption of resources, considering that, according to the most recent Circularity Gap Report, we have exceeded the record-breaking threshold of 100 billion tonnes of resources consumed in one year.
Put simply, digitalising doesn't necessarily mean decarbonising, and this seems to also create a problem for dematerialisation. Nevertheless, we are in the presence of a concept that is without doubt extremely elegant. Too elegant, probably, to the point of being deceptive and assuming the value of a sort of magic formula.
Let's look at one of the popular digitalisation trends we have had the most direct experience of, partly thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, namely e-commerce: a phenomenon that has seen an exceptionally sharp rise with the help of the lockdown, which complicated travel and steered people towards online consumption.
The sector trend had already been increasing at double speed for some time. And it is almost banal to highlight the fact that one of the negative aspects of this phenomenon is the increase in the road transport of goods and merchandise that used to be purchased without the need for a vehicle.
It is no coincidence that in 2019 Amazon announced an ambitious plan for sustainable operations, aimed at reducing the impact of their activities in terms of carbon emissions.
But there are less obvious aspects of the direct relationship between digital growth and environmental impact.
One of the most successful phenomena involved in dematerialisation is without a doubt our methods of communication. But the replacement of physical media with something immaterial is not without its unpleasant consequences: one single email, without attachments, produces around 4 grams of CO2, and the number of emails we send and receive in one day of work is constantly growing.
And this is just one simple indicator of a global phenomenon of digital pollution produced by powering the infrastructure that allows our networks to function.
Today, the number of users of the web, the amount of data to process (for example: how many searches do we type into search engines every day?), the power required and the energy consumed as a result, is responsible for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a value close to that attributed to air transport.

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And the development of the IoT (Internet of Things), the ever more pervasive use of sensors, artificial intelligence systems (AI) and smart cities are all phenomena that portend an exponential increase in this impact.
Not to mention what is already clear regarding the extraction of materials essential for the function of digital devices, such as rare earth metals. So much so, that today the first ratings systems are appearing for digital sustainability, pending the arrival of Ecolabels (and possibly ethical certifications) for the production of smartphones, tablets etc.
According to data cited by the European Commission, today the carbon footprint of the entire digital sector amounts to 6,800 TWh of primary energy, and 7.8 million cubic metres of water (freshwater, of course, the same water needed for agriculture, domestic use and many other production sectors).
So, yes, the advent of digitalisation is leading to the progressive disappearance of many physical objects. But it is useless to search for the magic button on our keyboards. It isn't there. Or maybe it is Ctrl + Q: quit. And shut down.
But in any case, we can try to help decrease our digital footprint. How?
One of the main forms of digital pollution, known as "dormant pollution", is caused by email traffic and archiving, which requires data centres to run continuously at full capacity. Data centres must be permanently air-conditioned and cooled, consuming a lot of energy. The life cycle of a 1 megabyte email uses 20 grams of CO2: the equivalent of a 60 W lamp being turned on for 25 minutes. Twenty emails per day for one year emits the same amount of CO2 as a car travelling 1000 km.

We should use hypertext links instead of attaching documents, and if we have to send them, we should compress them. We should avoid digital signatures, in particular images that slow down the sending process; we should limit email marketing and mass emails, and not "reply all" if it isn't necessary; we should unsubscribe from newsletters that don't interest us; we should regularly delete read or unwanted emails and empty the bin; we should limit the use of search engines, going directly to the site via the URL if we know it, and use "favourites".
We should also bear in mind that today, 80% of all data transferred online is video data, and 60% of these videos are archived on a server and viewed remotely, via streaming platforms. Every day, people watch over a billion hours of videos on YouTube.
We should try to download the videos and songs we like and listen to them offline; we should limit our use of the cloud (there are also green cloud providers) and archive our data on a hard disk; we should always turn off the computer and disconnect chargers; we should set sleep mode to activate on our device after a certain number of minutes.
And, above all, of course, let's stay away from the temptation of digital consumerism; we should keep all our digital devices for as long as possible. Let's resist the temptation to have the latest model of... everything.


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