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CODES Written Input for Global Digital Compact

March 21, 2024
04:01 (EST)
Marcel Dorsch
Senior Expert Digital Change and Sustainability Transformation, German Environment Agency

Digital environmental sustainability must not be forgotten in the Compact

What follows is the CODES written input to the online feedback form and respective questions on the structural elements draft provided by the co-facilitators Sweden and Zambia in their letter from 23. February 2024. The feedback was handed-in on 08. March 2024, it reflects the opinion of CODES co-champions and community members and echoes arguments provided in the CODES oral statement by Dr. Marcel Dorsch on behalf of CODES in the stakeholder consultations on 01. March 2024.

Please specify which different or additional priorities should be addressed in the Global Digital Compact.

  1. Include Digital Levers for Environmental Sustainability Goals: CODES welcomes a strong focus on “Accelerating the SDGs”. We explicitly support a feminist approach to digital policy and share your vision to steer digital innovations towards key development goals (including digital literacy and public capacity building). However, we ask the co-chairs to also explicitly address action areas on environmental sustainability goals in the Compact (this is not visible in the current draft). As represented by the 2030 Agenda itself, sustainability and development goals are necessarily and inherently intertwined. We should use the Compact to direct our growing digital capabilities to combat CC, biodiversity loss and pollution - and to realize climate neutrality and circularity. Also, many Multilateral Environmental Agreements can be enabled substantively via digital innovations.
  2. We need Dedicated Sections on Sustainable Digitalisation: Digital infrastructure, technologies and services have a significant and growing environmental footprint, for example with regard to high energy demand, emissions, resource use and e-waste. If we don’t mitigate this structural risk towards a green trajectory, digitalisation will become a threat to all SDGs. Hence, the Compact should address the sustainability of the digital backbone (data centers, networks, hardware, software, data and AI) as a dedicated principle and corresponding action area. “Sustainability by Design” must be clearly defined, promoted and demanded by the UN and its MS.
  3. Digitalisation is not a sector, but a dynamic transformative force that needs to be well understood and actively shaped cooperatively in all societal domains and over the entire UN system (more than “Internet Governance”). In inclusive and science-based assessment process would provide the competences and build capacities for the implementation and comprehensive follow-up of the Compact worldwide.

Section 2: Principles. Please provide comments and recommendations, if any

FIRST the ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY OF DIGITALISATION (energy demands, emissions, material use of digital backbone, including data centers, networks, hardware, software, data use incl.AI, also DPI) itself should be visible as a key principle, e.g. with a dedicated principle “Promote the environmental sustainability of digital infrastructures, products and services”. As a second-best option an existing principle could be further developed, e.g. principle 7 “Promote SUSTAINABLE, responsible and accountable development, and mitigate risks, of digital technologies including AI”. However, the first option is strongly preferred as otherwise even the term “environment” would not be visible as a topic of concern.

SECOND we strongly support principle 2 “Accelerate achievements of all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”, but want to stress that the “all” in the sentence should be taken seriously in the subsequent text. “Sustainable Development” as conceptualized in the 2030 Agenda explicitly connects development AND ENVIRONMENTAL goals inherently and systemically. Development without sustainability fails, sustainability without development is also prone to failure. Digital means can support significantly in all dimensions of all SDGs, including the fight against CC, biodiversity loss and pollution. This systemic perspective seems to get lost in the structural elements draft (e.g. the SDG related commitments under III. 1 do not address environmental SDG dimensions at all).

Section 3: Commitments.  Please provide comments and recommendations, if any

FIRST, ad 1) include actions and commitments towards ALL dimensions of the SDGs, the ENVIRONMENTAL SDG DIMENSIONS are missing currently. Our recommendations include:

  • Adjust the title to include ALL SDG DIMENSIONS, e.g. “Closing the digital divides and accelerating progress for all the SDGs
  • Adjust DPI commitment “Promote digital public infrastructures for inclusive ANDSUSTAINABLE development”, as there are growing efforts to use DPIs for environment, climate and biodiversity, e.g. via UNDP-led process and the multi-stakeholder CODES Impact Initiative 9.
  • Include commitments that address the TRIPLEPLANETARY CRISIS explicitly, e.g. “Promote systemic use of digital means to combat climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution”.
  • In this line, a specific action item should address “Develop adequate means to accelerate and support the MULTILATERAL ENVIRONMENTAL AGREEMENTS(MEAs) incl. Paris Agreement, Kunming-Montreal Global Diversity Framework and others.

SECOND, ad 2) include language, action and commitments for SUSTAINABILITY OF THE DIGITAL SPACE. Recommended additions include:

  • Add ‘sustainable’ in the title: “Fostering an inclusive, open, SUSTAINABLE, safe, secure digital space”
  • Include commitment on sustainable digital infrastructures, products and services, e.g. “Promote ‘SUSTAINABILITY BY DESIGN’ measures to define, exemplify and implement sustainable digital infrastructures, products and services (“green digital”), in particular with regard to building blocks such as data centers, networks, hardware, software, and data use incl. sustainable AI and DPI”.
  • Accordingly, include action for the UN and its MS to “Implement a ‘UN SUSTAINABLE DIGITAL INFRASTRUCTUREFRAMEWORK’ that helps to define key measures and examples for sustainable digital infrastructure building blocks as an authoritative and science-based reference.” Such a reference framework could be developed as a structured outcome of the ‘common blueprint’ process that was announced last year.

THIRD, ad 3) include specific commitments to collect, use and enhance GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL DATA worldwide. This includes data for implementing environmental goals as outlined in MEAs such as the Paris Agreement or GDF, but also data to increase the transparency of the digital backbone itself (e.g. energy use of data centers and other building blocks).

FOURTH, ad 4) include action and commitments on the development of SUSTAINABLE, GREEN AI as well as AI TO TACKLE ALL SDGS, including the environmental dimensions.

Section 4: Follow-up. Please provide comments and recommendations, if any  

Many international processes have shown that transparent review and systematic follow-up is necessary for a successful implementation of common goals. While your draft on structural elements includes valuable items, the ‘MODE’ of follow-up is not specified yet.

CODES promotes an INCLUSIVE AND SCIENCE-BASEDASSESSMENT PROCESS for the implementation and comprehensive follow-up of the Compact worldwide. This is important not only for AI and AI governance (as currently envisioned in the AI interim report pointing to IPCC like structures), but for the entirety of digital transformation, its opportunities and risks.

Such a structured and periodic review process can help to provide not only the knowledge, critical analysis and COMPETENCIES to better understand the digital transformation globally. It would also have the additional benefit of helping build publicly available CAPACITIES on digital tools and applications that support the acceleration of the 2030 Agenda.

Ona side note, regarding the strong push of some stakeholders to use established for a like WSIS and IGF for the GDC follow-up: we see the value of established multi-stakeholder governance structures. However, the modalities of an inclusive, effective and science-based GDC follow-up - be it under WSIS or elsewhere - should be made clear in the GDC document itself - and not be postponed to other for a with an unclear outcome.

Any additional comments

This input is provided by the COALITION FORDIGITAL ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY (CODES), which is mandated under the UN Secretary-General's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation to strengthen the environmental sustainability of digital transformation worldwide.

CODES stands for a GLOBAL COMMUNITY of hundreds of active experts, researchers and practitioners working on digital sustainability and is co-championed by the German Environment Agency, Future Earth, the International Science Council, the International Telecommunication Union, the Kenyan Environment Ministry, the think tank Sustainability in the Digital Age, the UN Development Programme and the UN Environment Programme.

CODES very ACTIVELYSUPPORTS THE COMPACT PROCESS. We have been highly engaged in all stages of the consultations with both oral and written input, organized multiple global community meetings and many high level side events on the Compact, for example at UNEA, IGF, SDG Summit, SDG Digital Day, and Climate COPs.

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