Authors Hendrik Zimmermann & Johanna Pohl
debate article

It’s Time for Bold Policy-making!

Suggestions for a Climate-friendly Digitalisation

In 2030, the ICT sector’s electricity consumption will account for around 10% of global electricity consumption (Hintemann et al., 2022). This percentage would roughly correspond to a doubling of digitalisation’s electricity consumption compared to 2020. Most of the sector’s electricity consumption results from producing and using end devices, followed by the electricity demand from operating data centres and communication networks. However, data centres and communication networks are expected to drive rising electricity consumption by 2030.
In this opinion piece, we propose policy measures for ensuring that, in Germany and the EU, the production and operation of ICT infrastructure, i.e., data centres and communication networks, produce as little greenhouse gas (GHG) as possible. In the following, we provide policy recommendations for data centres, data networks, and data consumption, recommendations we consider convincing after our many years of scientific and political work in the field and countless discussions with other experts.

A greener way to operate data centres

Despite the increasing efficiency of IT equipment and utility infrastructures, a strong increase in data traffic is leading to a rapid increase in the demand for capacity in data centres for processing, storing, and transmitting data. To keep this increase as low as possible, minimum standards on energy efficiency should be implemented, as well as ones on minimum inlet air temperatures for data centres that are cooled by compression chillers. Further, policy-makers should oblige data centre operators to employ a modular design so that hardware use can be optimised and partial loads can be run efficiently.
To reduce GHG intensity, data centres should be required to run on 100% renewably generated electricity, through direct power generation either on or next to the data centres or through power purchase agreements. In addition, based on the availability of renewably generated electricity in the power grid, the German government should incentivise intelligent load management in data centres. Similarly, the emergency power supply of data centres should be converted from diesel gensets to batteries. At the same time, however, the current challenges in feeding waste heat into district heating networks or transporting it to heat users must be resolved. Data centre operators are already obliged to make technical use of waste heat. However, local heat network operators should also be obliged to accept waste heat at fair prices, or to examine other local heat sinks. A feed-in priority for waste heat should be discussed. Municipalities should be obliged to make using data centre waste heat an essential criterion for urban planning and to take it into account in building and heat management planning. The German government could support platforms so that data centre operators, heat network operators, and municipalities can find the best possible way to cooperate in using waste heat.

Making communication networks more efficient

The enormous growth in data volumes, in particular in mobile data volumes, is another driver of the ICT sector’s electricity consumption. Compared to mobile applications such as 5G, fibre-optic connections are the more


Future decision-making

should support

open access models.


energy-efficient communication networks. As a transmission technology, fibre connections are therefore preferable, and nationwide coverage should be implemented.
Clear political guidance is essential to avoid too many systems of landline or mobile network coverage in parallel. For instance, the introduction of 5G mobile networks has been politically supported by following the faster-is-better paradigm. Future decision-making should support open access models. This access requires national roaming with uniform and fair grid usage fees to prevent multiple coverage. The government should also prescribe joint use of base stations and other infrastructure by different network service providers.
Mobile phone masts should be powered by renewable energies as far as possible, taking into account emergency power supply. For the expansion of 5G, old 3G masts should be used. To make 5G as efficient as possible, the government should support further research on how efficiency could be improved by technologies such as beamforming (the targeting of radiation to individual users), sleep modes at low load, and higher spectral efficiency through better modulation techniques. The government should support implementation where appropriate.

Limiting data traffic

Perhaps the most important but also the most challenging aspect is to prevent data centre and network efficiency improvements from being neutralised by growth effects due to ever more interconnected devices in the Internet of Things and the exponential growth of data (Pohl et al., 2021).


Policy-makers should aim

to limit data consumption

to a sufficient level.


Therefore, policy-makers should aim to limit data consumption to a sufficient level. We provide three exemplary policy suggestions for data traffic reduction. First, tracking human behaviour on the internet for marketing purposes comprises an essential part of the internet’s growing electricity consumption (Pärssinen et al., 2018). At the same time, such tracking is not aligned with sustainability goals. More to the point, it endangers data protection and privacy and even increases emission-intensive consumption (Santarius et al., 2022). Hence, measures to reduce tracking, and thereby data traffic, should include mandatory opt-in strategies instead of opt-out


There are enough suggestions

on the table for

building a different,

sustainable digitalisation.


(e.g., regarding privacy settings, tracking, online advertisement) and limiting data collection to only those data needed for the service being provided. Second, a large part of data traffic is caused by streaming. The EU should prescribe that autoplay functions and preload are switched off by default. Streaming services should also be required to reduce bitrates by default. Third, to create incentives for data sufficiency, flat rates with very high data volumes could be banned. To achieve climate-friendly digitalisation, the EU and the German government face major tasks. There is no more time to lose. The good news is: There are enough suggestions on the table for building a different, sustainable digitalisation. We have presented some of these in this opinion piece.

About the authors

  • Hendrik Zimmermann has been working professionally on energy transition for more than ten years and on digital transformation for more than seven years – for an NGO, an energy agency, scientific institutes, a German regional parliament, and public authorities. He is Team Leader Digital Technologies at the German Energy Agency. Opinions expressed here are his own.
  • Johanna Pohl conducts research at the interface of sustainability and digitalisation. As a trained environmental engineer, she is particularly interested in how the environmental impact of ICT-based services can be determined. Johanna was a member of the junior research group ‹Digitalization and Sustainability› at the Technische Universität Berlin and is currently a fellow at the Zurich Knowledge Center for Sustainable Development ZKSD.


  • Hintemann, R., Beucker, S., Hinterholzer, S., Grothey, S., Niebel, T., Axenbeck, J. & Sack, R. (2022). Dena Analyse: Neue Energiebedarfe digitaler Technologien - Untersuchung von Schlüsseltechnologien für die zukünftige Entwicklung des IKT-bedingten Energiebedarfs. Borderstep Institut, Leibniz-Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung, Deutsche Energieagentur.
  • Pärssinen, M., Kotila, M., Cuevas, R., Phansalkar, A. & Manner, J. (2018). Environmental impact assessment of online advertising. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 73, 177–200.
  • Pohl, J., Höfner, A., Albers, E. & Rohde, F. (2021). Design Options for Long-lasting, Efficient and Open Hardware and Software. ÖW, 36, 20–24.
  • Santarius, T., Bieser, J.C.T., Frick, V., Höjer, M., Gossen, M., Hilty, L.M., Kern, E., Pohl, J., Rohde, F. & Lange, S. (2022). Digital Sufficiency: Conceptual Considerations for ICTs on a Finite Planet. Annals of Telecommunications.
Next page