High time to include environmental concerns in strategies for digitalisation and AI


Greenhouse gas emissions linked to digitalisation are expected to grow rapidly. The French report AI for humanity recently presented by mathematician Cédric Villani offers important insights. In a well-written section on AI and ecological economy, the Villani task force notes: “Digital energy consumption increases by 8.5% per year and its contribution to world electricity consumption (which is growing by 2% per year) could reach 20% (moderate scenario) or even 50% (pessimistic scenario) by 2030, and therefore be multiplied 10-fold in 20 years’ time.”

The group comments on other environmental aspects: “The production of digital hardware uses large quantities of rare precious metals which are only partly recyclable, and the available reserves are limited (15 years in the case of Indium, for example, the consumption of which has multiplied 7-fold in 10 years).” Generation of dangerous waste, unsustainable mining of rare earth metals and high water consumption of data centres can be added to this picture.

Other studies have also found rapid increases of energy use and climate impact from digitalisation. Storage and processing of big data require large amounts of electricity, as well as the production of computers, screens and smartphones. Energy use linked to block-chain technology grows rapidly. In one recent study, researchers Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi found that by 2040, emissions from the use of ICT could correspond to more than 14% of today´s total emissions (published in Journal of Cleaner Production (Volume 177, 10 March 2018).

Of course, digitalisation also has benefits for the environment. This is often highlighted in policy documents, for example in the European Commission´s communications on the digital single market. Intelligent transport systems in smart cities is one example, more effective energy production and distribution another.

Still, increasing energy consumption is an issue that needs to be addressed, as well as  other negative environmental effects. However, policy responses to this challenge are to a large extent lacking. Yes, there are initiatives to power data centres with renewable energy and to reduce their power consumption. But this is not enough. For example, the drastic increase of energy use for bitcoin production should have been identified earlier as an environmental issue and alternative, more efficient algorithms actively promoted.

It is high time for the ICT sector to feature more prominent in climate strategies, and for ecological sustainability to be a key issue in digital strategies. As the European Trade Union Confederation, ETUC, notes in a resolution, “the deployment of digital technologies should be accompanied by a set of regulations and standards, which will help to ensure the – social, economic and environmental – sustainability of ICT value chains. The EU must also ensure that its action on digitalisation fits with the targets of its climate, energy and environment policies.”

One particular aspect is the current rapid development of machine learning. AI strategies are rapidly being adopted by a number of governments. The European Commission aims to agree a coordinated plan on AI with Member States by the end of this year. There are positive elements in the Commission communication on AI, for example on algorithmic awareness building. But it is crucial that environmental concerns, such as energy consumption for data processing, are included among the issues to be addressed. Currently, they are not. A key issue is how AI systems are trained. There is for example an urgent need for research and development on how to apply machine learning in a way that does not reproduce earlier ecological mistakes.

The Villani report highlights both risks and positive effects of AI on sustainability: “Although AI is a potential threat to the environment, it is also a potential solution. Indeed, there are many opportunities to use AI in the field of ecology: AI can help us understand the dynamics and the evolution of whole ecosystems by focusing on their biological complexity; it will allow us to manage our resources more efficiently (particularly in terms of energy), preserve our environment and encourage biodiversity.”

Cédric Villani offers a number of recommendations, inter alia:

  • Establishing a Meeting-Point for the Ecological Transition and AI
  • Establishing a Platform for Measuring the Environmental Impact of Intelligent Digital Solutions
  • Designing AI that Uses Less Energy (data centres, cloud providers, and alternatives to today´s energy intense graphics processing units, GPU´s)

Integration of environmental concerns in all sectors is a key principle in the European Union Treaties. Strategies on digitalisation and AI should reflect that. It will make EU policy stronger, both when it comes to sustainability and to long-term competitiveness. As part of such a broader ecological approach, the European Commission should listen to Cédric Villani and his colleagues and integrate the environment in the AI strategy to be agreed this year. That would also facilitate international cooperation on this truly global issue.

Window of opportunity for EU-China environmental cooperation


The creation of China´s Ministry of Ecological Environment announced last week is one of the major green news this year. The new ministry, headed by Li Ganjie, will be in charge of climate policy, marine environment and pollution from agricultural sources, in addition to the tasks of the old Ministry of the Environment.

A more powerful ministry is good news both for China and for global environmental governance. Coordination at the national level can improve. For example, climate policy can more closely be connected to other policy areas such as air pollution, water protection and biological diversity. Hopefully, disruptive infighting between different governmental bodies can be reduced. Another significant change is the creation of a new Ministry for Natural Resources, bringing together responsibilities for forestry, agriculture and land resources.

The organisation changes can also facilitate international cooperation. At a press conference on March 17, Li Ganjie emphasised China´s role in global governance `to build a clean and beautiful world´. The European Union and its member states should move quickly to make good use of this opportunity. Here are three examples of possible areas for deepened cooperation:

Air pollution. China´s efforts to reduce emissions are yielding results.  With Xi Jinping likely to stay in power for a long time, cleaner air will most probably remain one of the major items on the political agenda. Li Ganjie has already indicated that stricter limit values will be set for particulate matter (PM 2.5) for the period after 2020. The European Union and its member states are already cooperating with China in this area, but more can be done for example regarding: policy measures for better fuel quality including shipping, economic instruments for cost-efficient reduction of sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions, coherent strategies against volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and in-use vehicles control. Deepened cooperation on air pollution is also relevant in an East Asia regional context, where well-designed involvement of third parties such as the EU can help bridge historical tensions between China, Japan and Korea.

Climate change. Since Donald Trump took office, China and the European Union are the two main drivers for continued global efforts to combat climate change. Strengthened cooperation can include  knowledge sharing on carbon taxes as a complementary strategy to the highly risky Chinese emission trading experiment, joint assessments on the efficiency of policy measures (that can feed into a developed `Policies and measures´part of the climate convention), and reducing negative climate impacts of infrastructure investments (with the Belt and Road initiative as one example).

Non-toxic material cycles. China has a crucial role in global production networks and value chains. This is also true for recycling. Last year´s ban on imports of plastic waste has raised concerns in rich countries dependent on exporting such used materials to China. However, the ban is understandable given the health and environmental problems linked to often illegal waste imports. Instead, the decision and further ambitions of the Chinese government can give useful impetus to more ambitious policies within the European Union, for example to the negotiation on the new strategy on plastic waste.  Europe and China can cooperate more closely in global frameworks such as the Basel convention and international governance of chemicals. Another aspect is the ecological effects of imported natural resources, well highlighted in a recent report by China Council and in the European Union´s conclusions on resource efficiency.

There are of course many other possible areas for deepened cooperation and much is already happening. However, now is a good time for a more coherent and strategic approach, and closer coordination between EU member states. From a geopolitical perspective, such cooperation can also facilitate long-term stability in the region, including Korea and Japan in a broader EU-East Asia context.

Canada and Europe can show green transatlantic leadership


Canada is putting environmental issues high on its agenda for the G7 Presidency. `We are looking at a zero-plastics-waste charter´, said Environment Minister Catherine McKenna this week at the World Ocean Summit in Cancun. As chair of G7 this year, Canada would like the rich and powerful countries to agree on far-reaching goals for recycling of plastics and waste reduction. `We could build on goals like having 100 per cent reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging´, said McKenna.

Earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced climate change, oceans and clean energy as some of the priorities for the G7 Presidency. The progressive agenda also puts emphasis on gender equality. Quite a contrast to president Trump. It will be most interesting to follow developments in G7 this year, including the June Summit in Charleroix, Quebec.

Canada has a long and proud tradition in environmental policy, even if the level of ambition has varied in recent years depending on the political leadership. For example, the North American country was a forerunner in efforts to protect the ozone layer, resulting in the Montreal protocol. Canadian Maurice Strong played a crucial role both for the Stockholm conference in 1972 and for the Rio conference in 1992.

With Justin Trudeau at the helm, Canada is once again in the forefront of environment policy. The introduction of carbon taxes as part of the ambitious national climate change strategy is one such example. There are also a number of promising initiatives at province level.

At the same time, the CETA agreement between Canada and the EU is scheduled to soon enter into force. It is already applied provisionally, with the EU Commission for example having solicited comments on the forthcoming regulatory cooperation.

The EU and its Member States share many values with Canada, including on environment. There are many reasons to reinforce the cooperation with an ambitious joint green agenda. For example, the EU Commission recently put forward its strategy on plastics and a number of Member States are already moving ahead. Why not start with jointly pushing for a global agreement to ban plastic microbeads in consumer products?

Such green cooperation between Canada and the European Union would also provide a well-needed contrast to the foreign and trade policy of the Trump administration.

Toyota breakthrough on magnets illustrates need for EU state aid reform


A breakthrough for next generation motors, with far-reaching implications for sustainability. Toyota´s press release this week regarding “the world’s first neodymium-reduced, heat-resistant magnet” will facilitate the mass introduction of electric vehicles and new applications in for example robotics. The magnet does not use terbium or dysprosium, and the amount of neodymium needed has been substantially reduced. All these three rare earth elements have been designated as critical materials with only a few suppliers world-wide.

Japan is a world leader in material science. The government has since many years funded research into new types of magnets. When China restricted the export of heavy rare-earths in 2010, decision-makers in Tokyo increased funding for research and innovation aiming at reduced dependency of substances such as neodymium, dysprosium and terbium. This included both basic science at universities and applied research in institutes and companies.

Toyota is an impressive company with massive R&D investments. The governmental agency NEDO has also played an important role for the present breakthrough. As in other fields, NEDO has promoted new types of magnets by coordinating and partly financing efforts by the private sector. In this case, the program “Development of Magnetic Material Technology for High-efficiency Motors for Next-Generation Automobiles” has had a significant effect. The foundation in 2012 of the Motor and Magnetic Materials R&D Center (MagHEM), with the participation of government funded research institute AIST, has also been important.

The breakthrough illustrates a wider point. Japan allows for a greater amount of state aid to applied research and demonstration projects in companies than the European Union. NEDO plays an important role in this regard and has historically contributed to the commercialisation of green innovations such as the blue LED lights. The same applies to South Korea, not to mention China.

European researchers have pointed out the restrictive EU state aid rules as an obstacle to green innovations. For example, Måns Nilsson at the Stockholm Environment Institute together with co-writers makes this point in an excellent article on electric vehicles.

Reforming the EU state aid rules could be an important factor in making Europe greener and at the same time promoting competitiveness.

A carbon tax might be better for China than emission trading


“I was responsible for milk quotas in my previous Commission position. Emission trading for carbon dioxide is not something I believe in.”

The director in DG Environment was sceptical when a guest asked about emission trading as a policy option back in 1992. Later, the successful Swedish green tax reform was one of the inspiration sources behind the Commission proposal for a European energy and carbon tax. The first choice for the climate experts in Brussels was a tax, not emission trading.

However, it was not possible to achieve consensus around the European Commission proposal due to objections from in particular the United Kingdom. The European emission trading system (ETS) emerged as an alternative. Now, the ETS is well established, but still has problems after many years of low prices for the certificates.

Against this backdrop, the enthusiastic statements from Brussels policy-makers on the new Chinese emissions trading system seem oversimplified.

During recent years, there has been problems in the Chinese pilot markets with inter alia too many emission permits issued and a lack of tough sanctions towards companies not paying for emission certificates.

The national system will to start with only cover power production. Experts have questioned the lack of a ”hard cap” for total carbon dioxide emissions from the sector. Instead, emission certificates will be allocated to power plants according to their electricity production.

There are a number of other question marks. In addition to the lack of a cap for total emissions, the crucial issue of effective verification is not convincingly addressed and it is unclear how transparent the system will be to the public.

An upstream carbon tax on coal and oil has been identified by the OECD and others as easier to implement than emission trading permits. Even when China has now decided to try a national ETS, there is still the opportunity to apply a carbon tax in the non-ETS sectors. Such proposals have been developed, and even if there are recent negative statements from Chinese policy-makers regarding a carbon tax, the idea should not be abandoned.

The European Commission is investing heavily in promoting emission trading in China. A few weeks ago, ICF was awarded a ten-million-euro contract to support cooperation between the European Union and China in this area.

To help China avoid the mistakes in Europe is certainly a worthy task. However, the Commission’s approach is unbalanced, strongly promoting one of the possible economic instruments. Maybe one reason is perceived economic benefits from a future linking between the European and the Chinese ETS systems, but such a linking is unlikely to happen.

A strategy to promote effective policies against climate change in other countries should take a wider view and for example devote more resources to advise on the introduction of carbon taxes. In the case of China, such a broader approach seems well-motivated.

The Swedish Presidency: Effective but not Exciting



It is too early yet to make a final assessment of the Swedish EU Presidency. Negotiating a climate treaty in Copenhagen is the most important goal for Fredrik Reinfeldt and his colleagues. At the end of the week we will know if this aim was achieved.

However, it is possible to summarize progress so far in other fields.

As others have noted, it has been a low-profile but effective Presidency. Sweden moved issues forward that were already on the agenda. One contributing factor has been the many skilled civil servants and diplomats in the Swedish administration.

After Ireland´s yes-vote, Fredrik Reinfeldt was successful in convincing Vaclav Klaus to sign the Lisbon Treaty. That was an important achievement, allowing the new Treaty to enter into force on 1 December. It paved the way for the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton to the two new top positions in the EU.

Fredrik Reinfeldt´s leadership has been compared to a Volvo diesel, running at an even speed in a reliable way. In some areas, however, it would have been better with a modern eco-car with more acceleration.

It is hard to find many areas where Sweden really pushed the European agenda forward during these six months. Yes, an EU presidency should act in the interest of the whole Union, but it had been possible to take more initiatives during 2007 and 2008 that had been mature for decisions this autumn.

Environment is a case in point. The Swedish government was late in its proposals regarding the EU Sustainability Strategy review, and has taken few initiatives in areas such as chemicals, waste and biological diversity. The talk about `eco-efficiency´ did not lead to concrete decisions.

In some areas the reasons are ideological.

The centre-right government in Stockholm did not want to review the controversial directive on posting of workers, after a heated debate in Sweden regarding the Laval case. The conclusions at the December Summit on the post-Lisbon strategy do not contain much on good working conditions, gender equality or anti-discrimination, but these issues were never a real political priority for Reinfeldt´s Presidency.  

It is harder to understand the lack of initiative in areas such as environment or consumer protection where political parties in Sweden´s coalition government have traditionally had strong views.

Of course, there are exceptions.

Enlargement is perhaps the most important success story of the Presidency. Carl Bildt and his skilled collaborators played an important role behind the scenes to break the impasse in Croatia´s membership negotiations. There was also progress for Serbia and other parts of ex-Yugoslavia. Iceland started its route towards membership.

Carl Bildt also secured agreement on the European External Action Service. The Swedish Foreign Ministry did more to prevent a new Georgia crisis this summer than is publicly known, and managed (at least so far) to hold the EU together on Iran.

Justice Minister Beatrice Ask convinced her colleagues about a new Stockholm Programme with more focus on fundamental rights than before (her colleague Tobias Billström, however, was not able to change the repressive character of migration policy in Europe).

Health Minister Maria Larsson tried to hold the EU together in its response to swine flu and moved the issue of better antibiotics forward – an underestimated policy area.

But more often than not, Sweden followed the will of the big EU countries, for example on the appointment of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton.

At a remarkable event, France met with 21 other countries to discuss the future of agricultural policy, excluding Britain and Sweden – a clear provocation to the EU Presidency. The deal on financial supervision allowed the UK to retain national control over its financial sector, while the Swedish government watered down proposals on the regulation of alternative investment funds.

The Swedish Presidency was much better than the Czech, but it was in some ways also an opportunity lost.

Now in Copenhagen, the EU position is to abandon the Kyoto protocol without having a new binding treaty to put in its place.

That is not very promising for the final assessment of the Presidency.

[UPDATE Sweden´s first EU Presidency took place in 2001. A detailed description is now available in my book “Anna Lindh och det nya Europa”. More information at www.annalindheuropa.se.]

Ashton and Van Rompuy will have a tough start



The time for celebration is over. Now Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton must start preparing for their new jobs.

Catherine Ashton has a delicate balancing act to perform. The High Representative should take up her new responsibilities on 1 December, according to the Lisbon Treaty. But Ashton is facing European Parliament hearings before she is confirmed as Vice-President of the Commission.

She cannot wait for the vote. A number of urgent dossiers are already piling up on her new desk. One of them is the European External Action Service, EEAS.

When EU governments agreed guidelines for the EEAS, they left a number of controversial questions unanswered. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to gain control.

Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton face big challenges. Photo Gunnar Seijbold/Government Offices

The relationship between foreign and development policy is one such issue. During the European Development Days in October, many speakers were eager not to subordinate EU development aid programmes to short-term foreign policy priorities. Poverty reduction should remain the aim for EU financial assistance and the Commissioner for Development should be in control over programming (over the money, to put it more frankly). This view is shared by many Ministers for Development.

However, the guidelines for the EEAS state that the geographical desks should `play a leading role in the strategic decision-making´ about programming and implementation. Proposals to the College of Commissioners will be prepared jointly by the High Representative and the Commissioner for Development.

How this should work in practice must be decided before the end of the year, according to the guidelines. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to find a solution to the internal conflicts that remain. The European Parliament and many others will closely monitor the organizational structure for development programmes in the new Commission. Similar issues arise for EU Neighbourhood Policy programs.

Before April 2010, Catherine Ashton must submit her proposal for a Council decision on the organisation and functioning of the EEAS. Other difficult issues include the role of special representatives, and of EU delegations around the world. This goes especially for EU Delegations at the UN and other multilateral institutions.

At the same time, Ashton must quickly become a key player in foreign policy. Her first statement on Iran, for example, will be scrutinized in detail. To have any chance of success, she must delegate a number of tasks related to organization without losing overall control.

Hopefully, she will still have time to use the Lisbon Treaty to advance EU policy on horizontal issues such as human rights, conflict prevention, and green diplomacy. It is a tall order for someone with little experience in foreign and security policy, but Ashton should have the benefit of the doubt.

Herman Van Rompuy has a somewhat easier task. The Swedish Presidency will chair meetings until the end of the year, and Van Rompuy will be able to ease the transition of power in Belgium before taking up his new post.

However, the new President of the European Council must quickly agree a division of tasks with the upcoming Spanish Presidency. That might not be so easy. Zapatero is likely to fight for a strong Spanish role for example in the preparation of a post-Lisbon strategy.

Herman Van Rompuy must, like Ashton, devote much energy to the new organizational structure. What will be the relation between the President and the rest of the Council Secretariat, led by Pierre de Boissieu? Who will, in practice, prepare the work program of the Council and negotiate with the rotating Presidencies? My bet is on Pierre de Boissieu.

Many have asked whether Ashton and Van Rompuy were really the best two candidates Europe could muster. That is a good question.

But now, the choice has been made. Europe needs leaders who work well together and who make the European Union more than the sum of its individual parts. Ashton, Barroso and Van Rompuy deserve a fair chance.