Digital transformation and ecological transition are not incompatible

Philippe Tuzzolino

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In these times of acute awareness of environmental issues, our lifestyles face some healthy and very necessary questioning, namely in terms of the digital technology that has been revolutionizing the world for the past ten years or so. Philippe Tuzzolino, Orange Group Environmental Director, sheds his expert light on the subject to put into perspective various aspects of the digital phenomenon.

Some 190 states, institutions and NGOs are gathered in Katowice in Poland for the COP24 from 3 to 14 December 2018. The aim is to produce roadmaps for each country on how to implement the decisions contained in the Paris COP21 Agreement. The event is also an opportunity for businesses to take stock of the progress achieved on the commitments made in 2017 at the One Planet Summit in Paris.

You will recall that Orange translated these commitments into 2 ambitious objectives:

  • halving CO2 emissions per customer use by 2020 (compared to 2006 levels),
  • integrating the principles of the circular economy into the Group’s structure and processes.

So, how are operators, in general, doing in terms of this process and what is now known as the digital economy?

Ecological transition: and what if digital technology was part of the solution?

We often hear about the “digital sector”, a vaguely defined concept that seems to include big tech companies (GAFAM), operators, equipment manufacturers and a host of internet platforms, web companies, developers and other engineering businesses.

First point: digital technology is not just ONE sector. Digital technology is in ALL sectors. It is present in all areas of human activity: industry, transport, trade, all company IT systems, cities (smart cities), in our personal space… And so, as digital technology progresses, the more the demand for bandwidth and the associated costs increase. At the same time, innovative and corrective actions are being taken in order to reduce them, with the results helping to diminish the overall impact.

Second point: digital technology is by nature a driver of solutions in favor of the energetic and ecological transitions. Smart cities, smart grids and home automation all contribute to managing energy bills closer. The self-driving car, even if it is a great consumer of data, embodies the future of deliberate transport choices by being part of multi-modal travel, car sharing between individuals and in company fleets, and transport service platform applications are rewriting the traditional rules. In other areas such as e-agriculture, for example, innovative solutions enable the efficient management of natural resources. Digital technology even provides direct support for scientific research on climate change, as is the case for CREA Mont-Blanc or the oceanographic platform Euro Argo supported by Orange…

Digital technology needs to be given the time to realize its full potential

This is the third major point: even if all these technological advances briefly described above are promising, their effects have not yet been fully realized.

Digital technology is a formidable driver for the transformation of an old, highly carbon-dependent world into one that is more ecologically “smart”. But, for the time being, we are in a period of transition and so the environmental impacts of digital technology are in fact only adding to those of the “old world” (a little like the beginnings of the automobile when it added to the problems of horse-drawn transport). So, digital technology needs to be given the time to fully realize its potential. To condemn it now on ecological grounds reveals a lack of judgement and would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater! Incidentally, these analyses that result in accusations (in the form of forecasts based on a period of observation that is far too short) are not based on any proven scientific methodology and neither do they take into account the reductions either already achieved or currently ongoing.

So, digital technology is everywhere, but it is also in a development phase – through the growing number of uses – and in a transition phase through the gradual long-term replacement of an old, industrial world that will eventually no longer exist in the form that it does today. This is indeed a complete paradigm shift and the robust progress made by digital technology towards its phase of maturity will result in positive long-term effects, which will be far more significant.

The operators themselves, organized into various bodies to help them cooperate and share best practices, must manage this double movement. In 2017, in cooperation with the UN body the International Telecommunication Union and the consultancy Carbone 4, Orange launched the development of a methodology for the ICT sector in order to channel its contribution towards achieving the 2-degree target of the Paris Agreement.

This initiative is part of an ever wider range of initiatives taken individually or collectively by all the players in the digital sector. A movement that leads to 3 major observations:

  • the actions taken on the energy front are already producing concrete results as they are helping us to stabilize the curves that would inevitably have exploded had we done nothing,
  • they demonstrate that this transition phase is helping to anticipate what are on the face of it unfavorable changes, providing that all the players in the digital sector make a collective commitment,
  • lastly, they all illustrate in their own way, against a backdrop of ever faster innovations, a rapid growth in demand and a much needed transition, the migration from an “old”, industrial and highly energy intensive world towards a more responsible world aligned with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the desire to preserve resources.

The operators, and especially Orange, are utterly committed to this dynamic.

How Orange is reducing its environmental footprint

You will recall that, at end 2017, Orange achieved its 2020 objective – three years early – by reducing its CO2 emissions per customer use by 50.03%. Its global carbon footprint has also been reduced by 6% (1.33 million tCO2 at end 2017 vs. 1.42 million tCO2 at end 2016).

To achieve this, Orange has deployed an Environmental Management System. This led to ISO 14001 certification of 66.7% of the Group’s global businesses in 2017, which were rated A- by CDP. Orange France was itself ISO 50001 certified for all its 30,000 technical sites and its fleet of 15,000 vehicles; it is one of the first French companies to obtain this certification on a very large scale.

The purpose of the management system is to reduce the consumption of energy in all parts of the business, all functions and at all levels of the organisation. The system essentially includes five distinct areas:

For the networks and ISs (82.3% of energy consumption and 80% of CO2emissions across all regions), the programme Green ITN 2020 enables the systematic implementation of less energy intensive technical solutions, such as;

  • 90,000 virtual machines out of 130,000 servers within the Group for 70% energy savings,
  • optimised data centres: pending the opening in 2020 of the future data centre in Mainvilliers, that of Val de Reuil in Normandy is one of the most efficient in the industry and helps to save energy equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of a town of 30,000 people,
  • 2,800 solar sites to supply our mobile telephone systems in Africa, thereby avoiding emissions of 80,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.

For tertiary buildings (11.2% of energy consumption and 12% of CO2 emissions), since December 2017 all property related processes have been ISO 50001 certified. As part of the Cube2020 awards, the French Institute for Building Efficiency awarded Orange the prize for the most efficient portfolio, with savings of 14% for the buildings entered in the competition.

For travel and transport (6.2% of energy consumption and 7.2% of CO2emissions) Orange is exploring all possible innovative technological and human solutions to reduce its emissions. With nearly 2,000 vehicles, Orange has the number one car sharing fleet in Europe, it has a fleet of 650 hybrid or electric vehicles and uses about 360 video-conference rooms around the world to limit employee travel.

Renewable energies are now taken into account, especially in the Middle East and Africa Region through the Energy Services Company (ESCO) programme with an objective of 100% renewable sources by 2030. Solar parks are being looked into with the first energy self-sufficient site having been created in Jordan. In Europe, the Group uses Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) for its procurement of renewable energies.

The big projects of the future
The remaining challenges to be met by the other operators, and Orange in particular, are both internal and external. They are all based on one certainty: in the immediate future, all operators will need to be carbon neutral if they wish to continue to exist. With this in mind, there are four ongoing initiatives:

  • using 100% renewable energies by 2030 for the Orange MEA Region and by 2050 in Europe. This project is all the more important because it means REALLY achieving carbon neutrality with no recourse, save in exceptional circumstances, to offsetting and the certificates (credits) system. The Net Zero Initiative project, of which Orange is one of the founder members along with other large French and international groups, is working towards this.
  • integrating the circular economy into our organisation and processes.Following stakeholder dialogue at Group level in 2017, a strategy steering committee for the circular economy was formed in order to decide together on the actions to be taken within the core businesses and develop a 2017-2020 roadmap. The roadmap covers eco-design, limiting the consumption of critical resources, modularity and reusing equipment, the optimisation of waste management and the possibility of giving waste electric and electronic equipment a second lease of life (WEEE).
  • limiting the impact on natural resources. Equipment that uses critical materials and limited or sensitive resources, recycling and reusing WEEE, and the development of the principle of reuse are an obligation for Orange: 1.4 million used mobile telephones collected in 2017 (10 million in 10 years); 55,700 tonnes of WEEE processed in 2017 (dismantling / recycling) with 82% recycled; introduction at Group level of a common ‘stock market’ type platform for the reuse of old network equipment (regular country by country monitoring). Orange is an active member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100.
  • supporting suppliers and customers with their approach to the ecological transition. The three projects outlined above imply working alongside the suppliers so that they use, for example, better plastics, modular systems, reusable parts… especially in a sector where there is rapid technological innovation (migration to 5G, etc.). But the approach also concerns Orange customers: education on the use of hardware, consumption and responsible purchasing need to be put in place.

As you can see, these projects are far from being peripheral; they are a vital contribution to the required sustainability of our business against a background of constant growth in the ‘digital population’, combined with the intensification of types of use. This is the challenge that we are facing.

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