Building trust in the digital era: achieving Scotland's aspirations as an ethical digital nation

An Expert group supported by public and stakeholder insights has reviewed evidence and provided recommendations which will support and inform future policy. The report has a focus on building trust with the people of Scotland through engaging them in digital decisions that affect their lives.

A ‘Green’ Digital Scotland

Objects of Trust:

Fairness: Is it accessible to and usable by everyone who could benefit?

Transparency: Are the people behind it being truthful?

What is a ‘Green’ Digital Scotland?

An Ethical Digital Nation is one that addresses the environmental impacts of its digital usage. A ‘green’ digital Scotland is a nation that is actively seeking to reduce the carbon footprint and environmental damage of its digital use and industries (National Digital Ethics Public Panel Insight Report, 2021).

Scotland’s world-leading climate change legislation sets a target date for net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045[8]. Thinking about how to embed environmentally conscious digital products and services will be critical in helping Scotland to achieve this goal. An example of Scotland’s commitment to this subject has been the convening of Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which was one of the first fully digital climate assemblies in the world.

Digital economies can have surprisingly devastating impacts on our climate and environment. Digital waste, or e-waste, and unsustainable products and practices all contribute to worsening environmental standards, whether this is through the pollution created in the manufacturing of devices, the electrical energy consumed via online gaming and streaming sites or the physical e-waste created through the improper discarding of electronic devices. In order to achieve a ‘green’ digital Scotland, we should be considering how to better raise awareness of the environmental impacts of digital devices and technologies, as well as committing to stricter rules and standards that regulate the production of digital products in an efficient and environmentally friendly way. Education, awareness and regulation will be the key tools to help foster a sustainable digital society.

Some of the factors that pose a particular challenge to a ‘green’ digital Scotland include:

  • Emissions from energy intensive servers and streaming sites
  • Lack of public awareness
  • The need for circular business models that support recycling and reuse
  • Lack of a common framework for measuring impacts (particularly embedded carbon)
  • Business cultures motivated by profit
  • Lack of public motivation.

Why is a ‘Green’ Digital Scotland Important?

There seems to be limited public awareness of how the digital world plays a part in contributing to issues that affect the climate, such as pollution and waste. Digital technologies can provide wide-ranging benefits and opportunities to society. Some digital innovations even allow us to better understand and control our emissions. If digital technologies are here to stay, it is important that the models set up to create, produce and utilise digital tools and technologies are designed with sustainable and ethical practices at their core.

The National Digital Ethics Public Panel Insight Report highlights that being confronted with the environmental impacts caused by the use of digital technologies was a disturbing shock to many of the Members.

“I think most people probably want to do the right thing and are genuinely concerned about the environment and I think that building recycling into chains of production and consumption can be rectified… but when it comes to things that people do every day like binging Netflix shows or watching videos on the bus, how are we going to explain to people the damage this is leading to?”

National Digital Ethics Public Panel Insight Report, 2021, P. 26

“We need to be carbon costing every aspect of our economy.”

National Digital Ethics Public Panel Insight Report, 2021, P. 31

Case Study:

Digital Waste

Gerry McGovern & Dr. Laura Fogg-Rogers

The UK was the first industrial society. Which also means it was the first to emit significant quantities of CO2. In 1751, the UK was estimated to have emitted 10 million tons of CO2.

Digital is physical, yet it is treated like some invisible, benevolent force. Most of the waste and pollution that digital causes occurs during the manufacture of the device.

  • A smartphone can be made up of hundreds of materials and many of these materials are mined in the Global South. Child and slave labour is not uncommon in this mining process.
  • Many digital devices are manufactured and assembled in the Global South in working conditions not much better than sweatshops.
  • After very short lives, these “old” electronics are often packed into containers and then shipped back to the Global South where they pollute the environment and sicken the people.

Less than 20% of e-waste gets recycled and much of the recycling is done “informally”. According to a 2021 study by the WHO, over 18 million children and 13 million women are involved in the ‘informal’ e-waste sector. Teenagers inhale toxic fumes as they burn cables in order to expose the precious wires, pregnant women sort through digital trash, and children as young as five are used (because of their small, dexterous fingers) to pick apart digital products that were deliberately designed so that they could not be easily disassembled.

The UK is the second worst in the world at creating e-waste, producing an average of 23.9 kg per person in 2019, according to the UK Green Alliance. “The UK is the worst offender in Europe for illegally exporting toxic electronic waste to developing countries,” according to a report in The Guardian in 2019 (Laville, 2019).

The global average for annual e-waste production is 7.3 kg per person. What this means is that the majority of the world’s population is creating a couple of kg of e-waste a year at maximum, while the North is producing waste at a rapid rate.

With proper commitment to rules and standards, e-waste can be recycled in a way that it delivers a significant source of essential materials. It must be treated as a resource, not as waste. There are significant concentrations of copper, gold and lithium in e-waste and if digital products are correctly designed, the extraction of these materials can be highly efficient.

Can the Positive Impacts of Digital Technologies Balance out their Environmental Threats?

There is a need to balance the demand for digital technologies with environmentally responsible practices. Where possible, governments, organisations and citizens should be trying to limit the negative environmental impacts of their digital usage. However, there may be instances where digital technologies can actually help us to be more sustainable.

Advancements in digital capabilities may be able to have a positive environmental impact, and to help both individuals and organisations manage their own digital impacts. Some examples discussed in the National Digital Ethics Public Panel.

Insight Report (2021) include:

  • Improvements in online conferencing tools has made working from home manageable for many, meaning there are opportunities to reduce carbon emissions that would have been caused by travelling to work, although noting that online conferencing carries its own carbon footprint
  • Smart home technologies, such as smart meters, can help individuals manage and reduce their energy usage
  • Smart city technologies can help with traffic management avoiding congestion and reducing emissions from vehicles, whilst being mindful of wider ethical issues of both surveillance (mentioned above) and targeting emission-reduction
  • Online digital communities allow for items to be ‘shared’ rather than repeatedly recreated.

Key to reconciling the negative impacts of digital devices and e-waste on the climate is to put in place policy interventions and commit investment to all aspects of the ‘circular economy’. This entails investment in appropriate facilities as well as ensuring the right legal environment that both permits and incentivises recycling, reuse and repair. An example of this might be in design choices that facilitate reuse, such as developing products in such a way that all personal identifiable data can be easily and securely removed before the device enters the second hand market. Developing policies around the right to repair as well as mitigation of planned obsolescence would ensure that businesses were committed to minimising e-waste.

Another area of focus should be to raise awareness among citizens and businesses about the negative climate impacts of digital activity and devices. As public reliance and demand for digital technology is growing, and the climate impacts of digital often being ‘invisible’, education and awareness building are a pivotal first step in helping individuals, communities and businesses to make well-informed, climate conscious choices.[9][10][11]



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