The carbon footprint of Estonian digital public services

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The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication and the Estonian Information System Authority (RIA) commissioned an analysis of the environmental impact of digitalisation on the Estonian public sector. Since Estonia is the global leader in the field with 99% of the public services available online, this study offers valuable insights into the topic. According to the lead author Raivo Ruusalepp, a consultant from Ernst & Young, recommendations based on the analysis could also benefit other countries.

The emerging concern of ICT’s environmental impact

Estonia – like the European Union – sees digitalisation and the adoption of ICT solutions as the important tools for creating greener solutions. But while doing so, the tools themselves must be environmentally sustainable. A recent study indicates that the electricity consumption of the ICT sector currently forms around 5-9% of the world’s total consumption and over 2-4% of total emissions. This is 2-3,5 thousand million tonnes of CO2 annually. Considering the trends towards more digitalisation, this is problematic. More so, given that the environmental impact of ICT is an emerging concern, clear best practices in terms of countries’ approaches and methods in assessing these practices are not available yet.

“Due to the complexity of the IT sector, the measurement of the environmental impact is almost a wicked problem itself,” admits Raivo Ruusalepp, the report’s lead author. “We are using widely used life-cycle analysis, but we are merely contributing to the ongoing effort of addressing an increasingly burning problem that many bright minds are tackling as we speak.”

Mr Ruusalepp points out that there are considerable discrepancies between different measurement methods. To begin with, while middle-of-the-road scenarios indicate a doubling of energy demand by the ICT sector during the next decade, other scenarios claim that the world could simply run out of energy capacity before achieving ITC expansion. This has already happened in Singapore, where, in 2020, the city stopped licensing new data centres because they were already consuming almost 10% of the city’s energy. New data centres would have made meeting the Paris Climate Agreement goals impossible. Also, a widely acknowledged study by Geological Survey of Finland shows that there might not be enough precious metals on planet Earth to satisfy the growing demand for green energy.

Life-cycle analysis of the Estonian digital state

Analysis conducted in Estonia shows that the total impact of the workstation equipment life cycle of all Estonian state agencies is 26,000 t CO2e, which is generated throughout the use period of a piece of equipment (4-6 years). This is slightly more than 1% of the total emissions of Estonia, equivalent to the annual environmental impact of around 5,000 households or the use of 5,555 diesel cars.

To give a sense of the scale of the sector, the survey shows, for example, that Estonian public servants are using slightly more than 10 000 laptops. The survey also lists other equipment, such as servers, printers, and monitors. However, public servants also use a wide array of minuscule equipment.

“The smaller are the gadgets, the less their impact is monitored,” says Mr Ruusalepp. “For example, flash drives, cameras or ID card readers which we rarely pay attention to, actually amount to a lot of waste”

The environmental footprint of the equipment is the largest in production, forming approximately 75% of the total footprint of a piece of equipment. The impact of on-site use and disposal of equipment forms around 25% of the device’s total footprint. For instance, the use of a Dell Latitude 5420 laptop over four years generates around 72-96 kgCO2e while emissions from manufacturing a computer emit 309 kgCO2e.

As computers are produced and often re-used outside Estonia, the local environmental impact is mainly due to the electricity consumption of the equipment. Since the carbon footprint of Estonian energy production is great (89% of Estonia’s total emissions currently originate from the energy sector), this increases the environmental footprint of ICT equipment used by around two times the manufacturers’ reference values.

Cloud services offer the biggest potential for savings

In Estonia, the government uses the Estonian Government Cloud (Riigipilv) for IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS opportunities (Infrastructure, Platform and Software as a Service).  Unsurprisingly, the analysis pointed out that eliminating in-house servers as well as server rooms and relying on cloud services via data centres offers the biggest potential for cutting emissions. Consolidating servers into locations is up to six times more efficient! While data centres are still big emitters, they are also the most environmentally conscious. Among other sustainability indicators, data centres of the Estonian government use ISO 50001 energy management certification. Also, consolidating serves into data rooms allows using innovative solutions, such as heating homes with excess heat.

According to Kaidi-Kerli Kärner, Strategic Planning Director at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, already before the analysis, the Estonian public sector was determined to increase the use of Government Cloud.

„The analysis confirms that we have been moving in the right direction by increasing reliance on Government Cloud in everyday activities. Since its opening in 2021, we are also consolidating data centres Under the National Information and Communication Technology Centre, or „IT house” as we call it,” says Ms Kärner. “This is all to achieve the goal we have stated in Estonia’s Digital Agenda: Estonia will be the greenest digital country in the world by 2030.

Universal recommendations

The report’s authors make 9 recommendations for decreasing the carbon footprint of the digital state. These recommendations have universal value and hence are worth listing here in full.

  1. Consolidation of servers and server rooms to data centres and promoting the environmental performance of data centres
  2. Development of a financing model supporting green ICT choices, especially in using green procurement standards for purchasing new equipment
  3. Increasing the environmental awareness and competence of the ICT field, from increasing the motivation for the public sector to become green evangelists to mundane things such as awareness of digital trash, prudent use of equipment, avoiding printing etc.
  4. Development and implementation of environmental footprint measuring methods, especially in data centres
  5. Extending the life cycle of ICT equipment
  6. Removing obstacles related to the use of cloud services, including outdated legal restrictions
  7. Widespread deployment of cloud services
  8. Implementation of green practices in software development, including modular architecture, e.g. solutions based on microservices and adhering to minimum viable product principles for reducing power usage
  9. Promoting cleaning up digital trash

Read the full analysis.



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