30 June 2022
Green tech talk: new digital economy for workers, consumers and the environment
At the Green tech talk, I spoke to members of the European Parliament and staff from NGOs and several tech and industrial companies from Europe about a new digital economy for workers, consumers and the environment. I took the opportunity to stress the importance of sustainable digitalization.
And thank you to everyone from the EFA and the Greens for inviting me here this morning.
I will start my speech with a reference that maybe none of you saw coming: America’s Got Talent. Last week, in this very popular TV show, a candidate duo surprised the judges and the world with a very special act: in real time they created a deepfake video, where one of the judges appeared to be singing - while the real singer was performing live on stage (one of the ‘creators’ of this act is Belgian, by the way).
It was a striking, yet at the same time frightening, piece of advanced AI technology; a telling example that the digital universe is expanding, with the boundaries between the real and virtual world becoming increasingly blurred.
This simple example shows (and I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any of you) that the digitalisation of our society offers many possibilities,
but at the same time also presents us with major challenges, such as cyber security threats, fake news, managing online data, guarding the ethics of AI, facilitating a sustainable, digital transition and many more.
All these challenges require a response at the international, European and national level.
Now, I don't want to rank all these challenges in terms of importance, but I do think we should consider sustainability, energy saving, and circularity as key concepts throughout the digital evolution. In fact, I strongly believe that we should aim at a 'Twin transition’ - in which the digital turnaround goes hand in hand with a green, sustainable turnaround. Our resources are not infinite, a durable story filled with renewals will be essential.
And that’s why we should be aware that telecommunications and digital infrastructures need to become more climate neutral. We need to reconcile the rolling out of infrastructure on the one hand and climate aspects on the other hand, because infrastructure and using data consume considerable energy.
We need to make sure that this energy is generated from renewable sources, and pay attention to and invest solidly in renewable energy and ‘smart solutions’, such as smart cities and buildings, efficient water and waste management, smart energy systems that reduce energy consumption, etc.
Indeed, I believe there’s ‘no (going) digital without going green’. At the same time, I think digital technologies can be useful when it comes to achieving the sustainability objectives of the European Green Deal.
They can provide innovative solutions and a necessary infrastructure for supporting the transformation of our economy and society towards a more sustainable path, towards a clean and circular economy.
For me, it is clear that the potential of a green IT can be enormous, and therefore, I’m in favour of a common European approach to fully exploit this potential. In fact, I strongly believe that Europe should increase its scientific knowledge on the opportunities and risks of the digital transformation of our societies – with a focus on innovative technologies that could support our ecological ambitions.
And then there is one delicate aspect I also want to bring up: the complexities of welcoming private sector initiatives, such as the European Green Digital Coalition. We should be critical of those, as private interests can play a role, but we should however be open to the opportunities they can bring. We must ensure that we, as a government and policy maker, remain in the lead and that there is no abuse in the form of green washing. We must be open to working together while, at the same time, remaining critical.
In addition, Belgium’s federal government supports European initiatives dealing with green and digital goals, such as the digital decade 2030 policy agenda, the circular e-Initiative and the European Circular Action Plan. We also strongly endorse ‘the declaration of digital rights and principles’ and welcome its references to the key principles of ‘sustainable digital devices’ and ‘environmental impact’.
In this context, emphasis should also be placed on consumer devices, as they are one of the most important factors in the environmental cost. Consumers need to be better informed, for example through a C02-emissions label such as the Eco Rating labelling scheme developed by several telecom operators, which will help consumers to identify and compare the most sustainable mobile phones and encourage suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of their devices.
In this sense, the ‘right to repair’, which is progressively taking shape, and which will be discussed in depth here today, is a crucial step in the right, sustainable direction.
Also, the introduction of regulations around a universal charger contributes to this, as it will save everyone money and a total of more than 11,000 tons of electronic waste each year.
Lastly, artificial intelligence can also play a role in the digitalisation. My introductory anecdote of the deepfake video was of course not an example of a sustainable application. But here in Belgium, some more sustainable test projects are already running, for example to efficiently sort parcels at bpost, the Belgian postal service, for which I am responsible as a minister. And recently, I also visited a project in the port of Antwerp, where they use AI-driven technology to locate floating litter. It shows that there are many possibilities and that they are not always as farfetched as you might think.
I think we can all agree that the future will be digital. And therefore, it is important that we shape this digital future in a sustainable way. In the broadest sense of the word: whether it's regulating AI, securing our digital society and managing our online data or writing a legal framework for consumer devices; the people and the planet must always come first.
I wish you a very inspiring day. Thank you very much.