Decoding Green Technology: Navigating the Labyrinth of Eco-Tech Terms and Concepts

27.09.2023| Christian Kreutz
Truly green data servers are far from reality

When it comes to the relationship between environment and technology, there are many terms thrown around: Green technology, Climate Tech, Clean Technology, Green IT. They are often used interchangeably, though they mean different things. As I tried to understand it, I pondered the various interpretations of these ideas.

It's easy to recognize how technologies can lower or remove carbon dioxide emissions while also increasing their contribution to worldwide carbon use.

The Twin Transition framework can help us understand the critical role digital technology plays in reducing global warming.

  • We need to make digital technologies more climate compatible, meaning reduce their environmental impact.
  • Digital advancements are vital for the cause, from sensors and smart grids that save on electricity consumption, to AI techniques that enable better forecasting of future climate conditions.

It can be useful to distinguish between Green Technology and Green IT in order to comprehend the different concepts behind these terms.

  • Green technology covers a mixture of approaches to reducing carbon footprint, from renewable energies to better utilizing resources in industrial production.
  • Green IT specifically is focused on electricity usage of IT systems, data processing and digitalization via software use.

The Double-Edged Sword of Green Technology

Green technology, also known as Greentech or Climate tech, is often employed to refer to any digital technologies that can be used to generate and promote "clean" energy. There is this helpful definition:

There is no commonly accepted or internationally agreed definition of green technology. The term can be broadly defined as technology that has the potential to significantly improve environmental performance relative to other technology. It is related to the term “environmentally sound technology”, which was adopted under the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Agenda 21, although it is no longer widely used. (Source)

Different types of green technologies have been given the collective term 'green technologies': Renewable energies, energy storage, smart grid, mobility solutions or water conservation methods.

Many people refer to green technology as technologies that can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, such as smart grids for electricity or “greenifying” existing industrial processes. An example of this is green steel, which uses new technologies or renewable resources in order to create low-carbon or zero-carbon steel. However, the production of these “green technologies” is not entirely carbon-neutral. The manufacturing processes demand significant amounts of raw materials. These materials, in turn, necessitate large quantities of fossil energy for their extraction, transport, and processing, thus contributing to CO2 emissions. For example, making steel might not need fossil fuels, but getting the iron from the ground does. Not to mention what it does to the environment.

Green technologies with a direct and indirect environmental impact

Green IT refers to the employment of technologies encompassing:

  • Software that aids in optimizing energy use and monitoring environmental health,
  • Hardware, such as sensors, utilized for measuring diverse parameters, and
  • Networks that transmit data for controlling, processing, recording, or monitoring changes.

Technologies can help to better protect and distribute precious resources such as water. Did you know that rate of world water leakage worldwide is around 30% Networks of sensors are useful for detecting water leaks at an early stage, while machine learning software can be deployed to optimize repair services for water pipelines or predict next leakages.

Green IT: The Enabler and Itself a Trouble Maker

We've already seen that IT technology is not particularly environmentally friendly because the production process requires a lot of energy and resources, including rare earth metals that necessitate exploitation of workforces.

For instance, the production of a single laptop emits up to 500kg of CO2. To put this into perspective, the average global citizen is responsible for the consumption of 4 tons of CO2 each year. The production emissions from just one laptop amount to a substantial portion of an individual’s annual carbon footprint, highlighting the significant environmental impact of manufacturing these devices. In addition to the carbon footprint of manufacturing digital devices, we must also account for the electricity consumption of digital technology itself. Currently, digital technologies are directly accountable for approximately 2% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

This means that something like 'clean tech' often doesn't paint the whole picture when it comes to green solutions - it looks at what these technologies can achieve without taking into account how they were produced in the first place. While there have been some advances in reducing the carbon footprint of IT production, the rise in usage has more than made up for them. People now own many more digital devices than two or three decades ago; offices with two screens instead of one, and households full of internet-connected appliances that are essentially small computers too (think fridges, dishwashers, and voice-activated speakers).

Despite the promise of reducing carbon emissions, many "green" technologies are not actually green. As more and more digital solutions are introduced in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a rebound effect occurs. This means the technological strides made for conservation can be overshadowed by excessive usage of technology. But more on that in the next posts.