The world is going digital, and the world has a massive unaddressed climate crisis. Impressively, the United Nations now wants us to think of those two realities in tandem, and work to make a more digital world a more sustainable one.
The year-old Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES), driven in large part by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), this week released an “Action Plan for a Sustainable Planet in the Digital Age.” The plan aims to “embed sustainability in all aspects of digitalization.” That includes everything from new standards for software that measures emissions to building “planetary digital twins” to model and help remediate climate harms.
“We’ve failed to move the needle for 50 years because we haven’t catalyzed systemic changes,” says David Jensen, who oversees digital transformation work at UNEP, speaking of global inaction on planetary warming. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we will never see again, and we have to get it right.”
The action plan is multi-faceted, even sprawlingly so, but includes numerous urgently-needed ideas. For example, one key project is for a global “digital product passport.” Jensen explains: “It would be like a QR code for every product and service in the market, which says where it comes from and the carbon footprint of its supply chain–all the information you need as a consumer to understand the climate and environmental implications of using that product.” The European Union has already mandated a version of this. But CODES wants to help take it global and create universal standards, so every product’s impact can be directly compared.
CODES is actively seeking new members of all sorts. Aside from UNEP and UNDP, the founding “co-champions” of the effort include the German Environment Agency, the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the International Science Council, and Future Earth–“a global network of scientists, researchers, and innovators”–and that group’s own initiative Sustainability in the Digital Age. CODES also works closely with the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology. S-G Antonio Guterres in 2020 himself released a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, and the new action plan is intended to help build upon his efforts to build an inclusive and fair global digital society.
CODES defines itself as “an inclusive trans-national platform backed by the impartiality of the UN, where key global stakeholders across governments, private sector, academia, and civil society convene and align to forge the collective action needed.” Here’s how the executive summary describes the new plan: “Achieving global sustainability is not an inevitable or an obvious outcome of digitalization. Indeed, digital technologies, through their energy and material requirements and influence on consumer demands, have accelerated the exponential rise of the human impact on the natural environment that now threatens the resilience of our ecological systems…Digitalization has the potential to help transform society and business to a more sustainable and equitable world but only if there is a conscious and deliberate effort to steer it in that direction.” Philip Thigo, senior digital advisor to the Kenyan Government and a major participant in developing the plan, makes a critical point when he says it was “co-created with a strong emphasis on equity and on the needs of the Global South. Digital technology must ultimately support our well-being everywhere on the planet.”
The new plan was launched at this week’s Stockholm+50 meeting, which commemorated and built upon the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, where UNEP was created. “Digitalization is changing the way the world works, but the new world of work must be a sustainable one,” says Inger Anderson, executive director of UNEP.
Americans, unlike citizens of almost any other country, tend to dismiss the UN as ineffective and irrelevant, but initiatives like this show that to be very wrong. Here is a global group of collaborators tackling the most urgent global problem in an inspiring and thoughtful way. CODES asks for our partnership. Those of us who believe in the power of digital transformation need to get involved, to help ensure our own work helps cool, not heat up, this deeply-troubled planet.