The Hidden Environmental Costs of Government Digital Transformation

As governments everywhere rush to digitalize their services and operations, the serious human costs of this digital transformation are becoming ever-more apparent. Activists, scholars, and advocates are raising the alarm about the long and growing list of the human rights implications of digital government, spanning from exclusion to surveillance. But the rapid digital transformation of government entails an entire spectrum of other costs which remain obscured and under-acknowledged: the material realities of digitalization have profound environmental and social consequences. 

In light of the under-acknowledgement of these issues, and the serious and growing human rights consequences at hand, we launched this cutting-edge initiative in 2023. The Hidden Environmental Costs of Government Digital Transformation, investigates and draws attention to the human rights impacts of these environmental harms.

Through deeply interdisciplinary research, working with directly affected communities, and partnerships with activists, technologists, and climate scientists alike, we aim to spark new questions, pointing to the significant additional costs which are not being taken into account when governments embrace digital transformation.

  • We approach this topic squarely through the lens of international human rights to underscore the dangerous and messy realities of digitalization, focusing on the social and human impacts resulting from the environmental harms of government digital transformation. In contrast to technicized, sanitized discussions of the environmental impacts of AI which are now emerging, we are humanizing these issues.
  • Crucially, we are examining the global dynamics at play as the environmentally destructive implications of the vast material infrastructures underlying digitalization processes are invisibilized. 
  • We are investigating and highlighting the extraterritorial, spatially dispersed nature of the environmental harms of digitalization. Inequalities in the distribution of environmental and social harms, and the ways in which this distribution tracks racial, class-based, and global inequities, are central to our work.

Through this initiative, we hope to galvanize others in bringing attention to these environmental and human harms. 

  • We are bringing together human rights organizations, environmental activists, scientists, technologists, local community-based organizations, and others, to foster multidisciplinary collaboration and shared learning. 
  • We are providing tools for a diverse range of civil society actors in this area to identify possible paths forward, including through filling a research gap by highlighting possible best practices in government policy and developing trends. We are mapping nascent government responses to these issues, identifying model regulatory frameworks, and analyzing existing approaches. 
  • We hope to raise awareness of governments’ regulatory power and role in setting standards for the field, to lay the foundations for future research and action.

In their digitalization strategies and blueprints, governments often invisibilize and ignore the significant environmental costs of digital transformation. The digital sphere is portrayed as transcending the physical world, and we are promised a future in which digital government is “presence-less.” But digitalization is profoundly physical. Vast networks of electrical wiring, cables, generators, and other equipment underlie the digitalized systems of “mature digital governments;” these ever-expanding infrastructures are constructed using rare earth materials and metals; and enormous amounts of energy are used to power technologies and processes.

These physical realities entail significant environmental impacts, social costs, and serious human rights harms. From the environmental and social implications of the mining for metals required for hardware, the environmental damage arising from manufacturing electronic equipment, the energy and water consumption of data centers, and the toxic harms of electronic waste, the material realities of ‘the digital’ impact the rights to life, health, food, water, land, and environment, among countless other implications. These effects are unevenly distributed, falling disproportionately on low-income, indigenous, and other historically marginalized groups.

Though increasing attention is now being paid to the environmental footprint of new technologies, this has almost exclusively focused on the private technology industry. This is understandable, as large technology companies have enormous and growing environmental footprints, many are key players in driving increasing demand for hardware, and a handful of Big Tech companies operate over half of the world’s largest data centers. The ICT sector’s greenhouse gas emissions are comparable to those of the aviation industry, and this is projected to rise to over 14% of total global emissions by 2040. Greenpeace has therefore been calling on major internet companies to power their data centers by renewable energy since 2010; and computer scientists and engineers have also launched efforts to reduce the energy usage of software.

Comparatively, the environmental implications of government digitalization have received little attention. The digitalization of government services and processes is accelerating at breakneck speed, and governments from India to the United States, and from Argentina to Uganda, are already implementing widespread digitalization initiatives and deploying more computationally intensive methods across the public sector. The data-driven, digitalized governments of the near future will involve enormous databases and analytical models, sophisticated software, and reliance on large-scale computational power. Far from being “presence-less,” digitalizing government entails vast amounts of electronic equipment, significant energy consumption, and tons of e-waste. The serious environmental damage and increased greenhouse gas emissions resulting from current and future state digitalization initiatives require urgent and widespread attention.

Focusing on the environmental implications of governments’ digital transformation schemes is not only crucial in encouraging states to mitigate and reduce impacts, this focus on governments will also influence private actors’ practices. Where the state takes action to reduce its own environmental footprint, it has ripple effects across the economy. Governments are issuing enormous contracts for software, digital equipment, and computing capacity, and can thereby shape markets through their procurement rules. Of course, governments also have a critical role to play in monitoring and constraining industry actors’ practices through their regulatory powers.