According to a report issued by Global e-Sustainability Initiative, digital solutions can bring to a 16% reduction of climate-altering gases before 2020, a result that would go way beyond the objectives of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate. But is glittering digitalisation really all gold? How and how much the digitalisation processes at the base of sharing economy can contribute to environmental sustainability?

“First of all we have to take into account that creating infrastructural systems and digital devices involves the use of considerable amounts of material resources and energy. For example, if we consider an iPhone ¾ of the energy consumption of its whole life cycle is used during its production process, and only 25% during its use,” points out Tilman Santarius, an eco-analist who is head of a research group on digital technologies at the Berlin Polytechnic and at the Institute of Economic Research for Ecology (IÖW). “From this point of view digitalisation does not seem to be sustainable. But there’s another question: can digital tools reduce the use of energy and resources in other fields? In the case of digital platforms for goods and services sharing the answer is yes, because these sharing systems allow a reduction in production and purchase.”


Let’s focus on the material resources of which digital supports are made of: what are the main problems during their entire life cycle?

“As I said, the production of a tablet, an e-book reader or a smartphone covers most part of the whole energy balance. At this stage it’s important to reflect on the raw materials employed in production: which materials, where are they extracted and in which conditions? Many are rare metals that come from conflict-torn areas. Let’s just consider palladium or cobalt, that are extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in mines where workers, and especially children miners, are inhumanly exploited, where the level of environmental protection standards is minimal and the resulting profits feed the guerrilla.

“Other problems arise at the end of the products’ life cycle, when these devices end up as waste. This often happens prematurely, partly because of planned obsolescence, that deliberately shortens their life-cycle, and partly because of some sort of psychological obsolescence, that pushes consumers to long for the last, best performing model on the market, and get rid of devices that are still working perfectly. All this is causing a constant increase in electronic waste: in 2015 we reached 42 millions tonnes, a mountain of waste as big as the one we would have if we piled up all the cars that are now on the road in Germany. This waste ends up mostly in China, Western Africa or in the Indochina peninsula, where it gets only partly recycled, in disastrous environmental and working conditions, whilst the rest is thrown in unauthorised dumps. The issue of electronic waste is crucial in any sustainability analysis of the digital world.”


What do you think of 3D printers in terms of sustainable use of resources? 

“On the one hand 3D printers have the advantage of being able to make use of poor materials of various nature and waste materials, and could therefore reduce the use of raw material and avoid the use of rare precious metals. On the other there’s an economic issue we need to deal with: who can afford a printer that can really produce goods such as cars? Who’s got the power and the know-how to manage devices of such a size? If we look at what 3D printers are actually producing in the world now we find out, to quote the funniest example, they are mostly producing thousands of plastic toy dinosaurs in different colours, because people enjoy watching how they are created. I rule out that this has anything to do with ecology. Therefore there’s still much to be done to make sure that these technologies can give a real contribution to the safeguard of the environmental and of natural resources.”


Let’s consider Industry 4.0: what’s now prevailing is the discussion on the effects of automation on employment. From the point of view of environmental sustainability, could the automation of productive processes be beneficial in terms of resources and energy savings?

“There’s an aspect that must not be overlooked in this discussion: we have to ask ourselves if because of the rebound effect automation will not end up increasing production, and as a consequence the overall resources and energy use. The increase in efficiency is an incentive to produce more goods, because productive processes get more efficient and therefore use less materials and energy to create each single product: the final outcome is that altogether we employ more resources, because of the increased amount of goods we produce. In other words, what we save through efficiency for each single product, we loose because of the increased amount of products. 

“The same happens with consumption: because automation brings to energy efficiency and an efficient use of resources, industries can place on the market a bigger amount of goods at a more convenient price. But this encourages consumption, because there’s more goods on the market at a lower price. If we really want to use the energy efficiency of Industry 4.0 to save resources and energy, we need to support this increase in productivity with proper political measures, for example raising the cost of energy and raw material in relation to the level of efficiency that has been reached in their employment.”


In everyday use we make of platforms in sharing economy, what are the positive examples in terms of contribution to environmental sustainability, and what instead goes in a very different direction?

“In my opinion positive examples are local systems to share and exchange working equipment and tools, cars, clothes and so on: in this case sharing brings to a real reduction of consumption. And it also has a relevant social aspect, because it helps create networks, as well as friendships and good neighbourly relations, that can strengthen and revitalize communities. Negative examples are the instances of sharing economy that do not bring people to give up individual ownership, but instead increase the options for consumers. In my opinion these include free floating car sharing systems, that are not used by people who have given up owning a car, but by people who have a car parked at home, and use car sharing in town as an extra-option. A poor result in ecological terms, that increases car traffic on the roads. Another critical aspect of sharing economy concerns the players who have control over it.”


Could you tell us more about this? 

“I would distinguish two kinds of digital platforms: on the one hand those with a capitalistic print, like Uber and Airbnb that have reached the size of a world network and now control the residential and housing sector, as well as the private transport sector, in a purely business style. On the other we have platforms that are inspired by a cooperative model, based on exchange.”


Couch surfing, the platform used to offer free hospitality in exchange for further hospitality and therefore with no money involved, is part of this second category, right?

“Of course, and it’s not the only one. There are also taxi coops. And as for shopping online we have, an environmentally and socially responsible coop that is taking hold in Germany, and whose philosophy is the opposite than Amazon’s.”


An ongoing debate concerns the way Big Data is a risk for privacy, as you underlined during the Colloqui di Dobbiaco in 2017. Is it possible to protect privacy when using sharing economy platforms?

“We have to be aware that all the information published on WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook is not protected. But now there are some online competitors like for example Threema, an alternative service to WhatsApp, that guarantees privacy because the information circulating through it is encrypted, and is available only to the people who exchange it: the provider itself has no access to it. It’s still a ‘niche’ app: it would be good to use it at least with family and friends. There’s also alternatives to Google: DuckDuckGo is a research engine whose headquarters are in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Its mission statement contemplates data protection for its platforms users. However, providers can’t bear all the responsibility for privacy: policy must play its part. There are already rules on privacy protection for police, public officers and secret services. They should be extended to private economic operators, determining who is authorised to develop and preserve data and eventually sell them to third parties, for example to the advertising industry. These are previsions that must be set out by law.” 


Istituto di ricerca economica per l’ecologia,