Digital sobriety is now a top priority at EPFL

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An independent report commissioned by EPFL’s upper management recommends drastic measures and more comprehensive carbon accounting in order to reduce the substantial environmental impact caused by the use of digital technology at the School.

A recent assessment of EPFL’s digital-technology carbon footprint found that the use of computer equipment by staff and students accounts for 25% of the School’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s six times higher than the global average. These are the conclusions of Impact Environnemental du Numérique à l’EPFL (Environmental Impact of Digital Technology at EPFL), a report issued by the Digital Sobriety working group (part of EPFL’s Climate & Sustainability Task Force) with the support of Zero Emission Group, and reviewed by an international panel of experts. EPFL’s new Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation is taking the working group’s findings very seriously.

Targeting an 18% annual reduction

In addition to generating greenhouse gas emissions, digital technology has a considerable impact on freshwater reservoirs, primary energy sources and abiotic resources (such as rare-earth minerals). The report concludes that the School needs to shrink its digital-technology carbon footprint by some 18% per year between now and 2030 in line with the Swiss government’s commitments under the Paris Agreement.

And because 40-50% of this footprint comes from the manufacture and use of computer equipment and other consumer devices (such as PCs, laptops, smartphones and tablets) - which generate even more emissions than the School’s data centers - the working group recommends setting up a centralized department to manage this kind of equipment.

"By limiting purchases of computer equipment (...) and by encouraging users to recycle used devices, EPFL could significantly reduce its digital-technology carbon footprint and give it the resources needed to transition to a more sustainable use of digital technology."

The working group also suggests that EPFL’s upper management begin itemizing digital-technology emissions in its carbon accounting by collecting data on its digital technology and measuring its impact on a real-time basis. Another suggestion is to minimize the outsourcing of IT services, especially to service providers located outside Switzerland. Finally, the working group recommends training staff on best practices in sustainable digital technology and running awareness campaigns among EPFL staff and students.

The Vice Presidency for Responsible Transformation will quickly develop a digital sobriety strategy to ensure EPFL remains at the forefront of this issue, which is extremely important to all of EPFL’s schools and crucial to preserving the environment.