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Estonia to become the greenest digital government in the world

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Estonia, known for its digital state prowess, is now taking on the challenge to build the greenest digital government in the world — using AI, cloud infrastructure and more.

With the help of ICT, we can make many areas more environmentally friendly. Agriculture, manufacturing or services can all be made more sustainable if we smartly use data and ICT. But little has been talked about how much ICT itself has an ecological footprint. This is what Estonia is starting to tackle now. Being a leader in digital state technology for several years, it is understandable that the effect of Estonia’s ICT on the environment has also increased. Therefore, Estonia’s public sector is looking to make its ICT more sustainable in several areas simultaneously.

Addressing carbon footprint on a new level

First off, what specifically in ICT creates the biggest ecological footprint? In 2022, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications ordered an analysis carried out by Ernst & Young to determine the effect of different areas of ICT in the public sector. The analysis of green digital government looked at five things: data centres, cloud services, workstations, digital trash, and software solutions. The scope of analysis included 12 public sector institutions and 4 local governments.

The results were surprising. One might think that going digital abolishes all negative environmental effects, but this is not fully the case. According to Shaping Europe’s Digital Future, the electricity consumption of the ICT sector currently forms around 5-9% of the world’s total consumption and over 2% of total emissions. Ernst & Young’s analysis found that when we look at Estonia specifically, the total impact of all workstation equipment used throughout Estonian state agencies (laptops, desktop PCs and monitors) is 26,000 tonnes of CO2 over the equipment’s life cycle.

What does that mean? “Well, simply put, the carbon footprint of Estonia’s public sector ICT equipment usage for the average effective equipment lifecycle of 4 to 6 years equals the use of 5,555 diesel cars every day for a full year,” says Ernst & Young senior consulting manager Raivo Ruusalepp. And just one laptop creates 100kg CO2 per year. To offset the impact of just that one laptop, we would have to plant about 4 trees every year.

However, the laptops of public servants are not the biggest contributors to the problem. The biggest footprint is created by servers and data centres. The problem is that many public institutions still have their own small server rooms, and those often are not built for purpose. So, they don’t use renewable energy, nor do they reuse the heat created by servers. The private sector, especially telecom companies, is a great example of how modernising server rooms can have a positive effect.

Telia’s experience shows that contemporary data centres can offer the same service in a considerably greener way compared to in-house server rooms. For instance, the consolidation of the equipment reduced the requirement for physical space by sixfold. “Our clients value our efforts of providing sustainable services, and since servers were one of our main energy consumers, it makes sense to invest in modern server housing that reuses heat,” says Helena Hiis, Telia brand manager. So, Estonia is consolidating data centres but also looking at ways data centres could be using more energy-efficient buildings alongside green energy.

The same goes for cloud services as well. Consolidating services to a state cloud and following the cloud first principle will help tremendously to lower the negative effects of ICT.

Taking on the software… and old presentations

One of the areas that still has a smaller effect is software. It may not have a big footprint today, but that may all change quickly. New energy-intensive technologies like big data, blockchain and cryptocurrency may very quickly require large amounts of energy. At the moment, popularising more microservices and cloud-based tools can already help to minimise the effects of software.

These are all things that need decision-making on a higher level. But actually, every person can make a difference and help minimise the effects of ICT on the environment. Digital waste is one key component of the ICT ecological footprint. Digital waste is all the files, documents, photos, videos, etc on our computers and phones. And until the space runs out on our devices, unfortunately, not many of us regularly clean up and organise our digital cupboards and drawers. Holding on to PowerPoint presentations from 5 years ago or forwarding an attachment to 20 co-workers instead of sharing it as an uploaded file are very common habits.

And all of this adds up. As a result of the analysis, we found out that not many public sector institutions organise routine digital clean-up days, but those who do, benefit from it a lot. For example, the Estonian Police and Border Guard has managed to avoid buying extra server space for 4 years, thanks to regular clean-ups. And therefore, it has saved a considerable amount of money. To educate public sector employees on what the effects of digital trash are and how to clean up, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications created a free online training on Digital State Academy.

Knowledge of all of these areas is a great starting point for Estonia to start tackling the environmental footprint that our digital state creates. Most countries in the world have not yet started to tackle these issues strategically, so currently, we can only benchmark Estonia’s own progress. The goal, according to Estonia’s national Digital Agenda for 2030, is to make Estonia the greenest digital government in the world. It is an ambitious goal, but being a forerunner in digital governance for years now and with plans to expand our digital services, it is only natural that we start to look at what we can do to use our ICT in a more sustainable way.

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