In 2020, we saw a 40% surge in internet use as more and more people worked from home and sat through Zoom calls during the pandemic; with internet traffic more than doubling between 2017 to 2020 and over five billion internet users in 2022, the amount of energy used by digital technology is ever increasing.1 Furthermore, we have seen a shift towards more mobile interaction, with 70% of the global population having a connection by 2023,2 which has increased the amount of rare-earth mining required for producing all the laptops, smartphones and tablets that we all cannot live without.3 Despite this monumental increasing amount of our lives becoming ever more digital, data transmission networks and data centres that house all of our virtual data have remained relatively stable in their energy use, at around 1.1% and 1.1-1.4%, respectively, of global energy consumption.4 These stable numbers can be caulked up to increase efficiency for the Big Tech’s hyperscale data centres, like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. It is not all sunshine and roses, however; increases in energy for areas like bitcoin farming and machine learning have outpaced data centres in recent years, and demand for rare-earth metals – e.g. Cobalt and lithium – have doubled in the past 15 years as their uses in green-technology have called for the creation of larger batteries and magnets. A single wind turbine can use up to 600 kilograms of rare-earth metals to become the “green” energy we know.5 These processes create serious environmental damage from the co-mining of toxic metals, like uranium and thorium, and the scale of the mining area that is disturbed to get at such a limited supply.6 All of our mining for rare earth metals increases our environmental impact and continues the cascading effect of climate change.
We are constantly surrounded by news stories about our changing climate and the consequences of climate change on our environment and social and economic well-being. In the past two decades, we have seen our oceans warm and acidify, natural disasters – namely wildfires, flooding and droughts – increase in severity and frequency, and temperatures are anticipated to warm 4.4℃ by the end of the century.7 The last decade has seen a loss of species escalate to 1,000 times the rate ever recorded over human history,8 an alarming rate that has led some scientists to argue that we have entered a mass extinction-level event.9 However, while digital technology is in no way innocent regarding emissions and environmental impact, it may hold the key to returning our planet to balance.
For example, AI-created images, much like those we have seen in creating deepfakes of political leaders and business leaders like deepfake Elon Musk scamming crypto investors or Russia’s use of deepfakes in the war against Ukraine, have been utilized to create more than just political leaders singing jingles. By involving the innate human experience of empathy to guide technology, a group of researchers at Mila, the Quebec AI Institute, used seemingly harmful technology to bring climate change to our front doors by creating This Climate Does Not Exist. This Climate Does Not Exist allows individuals to experience the drastic implications of climate change in their environment by editing images from google street view to show flooding, forest fires and smog.
Data is available now more than ever before. Those in the AI and digital technology space have been using geospatial data to create digital tools to monitor carbon emissions and spread awareness to those who may not yet feel climate change’s impact on their front door. With released free access to geospatial data through programs, namely what was formerly known as GeoGratis from the Government of Canada and the Multi-Missions Algorithm and Analysis Platform (MAAP) program created by NASA and the ESA, accelerated data research to help track carbon emissions and other risks related to climate change. Companies like Planet and Minerva Intelligence’s Climate 85 project use AI to enable others to futurecast the effects of climate change through projects like landslide and flood risk indexes and maps. We can better understand and design solutions to mitigate and revitalize our ecosystems by monitoring climate conditions. To produce maps and models, groups like the Applied Geospatial Research Group focus on managing complex ecological patterns and processes using remote sensing products, including satellite imagery, UAVs, and LiDAR. By using data to ensure that we are closely monitoring changes to our climate and futurecast what impacts we have on the environment, we can set about reaching our environmental goals through bringing awareness and education.
1. Cisco, Cisco Annual Internet Report (2018–2023), last modified March 9, 2020, https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/executive-perspectives/annual-internet-report/white-paper-c11-741490.html.
2. Cisco, Internet Report.
3. “COVID-19 Impact on Mining,” Mining Technology, accessed on May 17, 2022, https://www.mining-technology.com/covid-19-in-mining/.
4. “Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks,” IEA, last modified November 2021, https://www.iea.org/reports/data-centres-and-data-transmission-networks
5. Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo, “Demand for Rare-Earth Metals is Skyrocketing, so We’re Creating a Safer, Cleaner Way to Recover Them from Old Phones and Laptops,” The Conversation, last modified April 15, 2021. https://theconversation.com/demand-for-rare-earth-metals-is-skyrocketing-so-were-creating-a-safer-cleaner-way-to-recover-them-from-old-phones-and-laptops-141360.
6. Cristina Pozo-Gonzalo, “Demand for Rare-Earth Metals is Skyrocketing,”
7. “Climate Action Fast Facts,” United Nations, accessed May 17, 2022,
8. “Causes and Effects of Climate Change,” United Nations, accessed May 17, 2022, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/causes-effects-climate-change.
9. “What is the Sixth Mass Extinction and What Can We Do About It?” WWF, last modified March 15, 2022, https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-the-sixth-mass-extinction-and-what-can-we-do-about-it