28 Apr 2022 | Story | S+50

Getting the planet’s other half online

Organizations across the globe are set to commemorate the Stockholm+50 international meeting in June 2022. In lead-up to the event, we are showcasing articles published by partner agencies on issues related to environmental challenges and environmental action. Read on to find out more about how the digital divide has a hand in escalating climate change.


While the internet might seem like it’s everywhere, more than 3 billion people around the world are still offline.

That digital divide is not only driving poverty, it’s also contributing to climate change and a host of other environmental problems, says Éliane Ubalijoro, a professor of international development at Canada’s McGill University and the executive director of the research group Sustainability in the Digital Age.

Professor Éliane Ubalijoro is seated outdoors and smiling at the camera
Professor Éliane Ubalijoro says internet access can be a powerful tool for reducing poverty. Photo by Éliane Ubalijoro

Ubalijoro is part of a new initiative being co-championed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that’s using digital technology to combat some of the world’s most intractable social and environmental challenges. Called the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability, it aims to hardcode environmental sustainability and circularity into the platforms, algorithms and apps of the digital economy.

Ubalijoro spoke with UNEP about the role of tech companies in combating poverty, the surging power demands of data centres and the societal toll of a half-finished World Wide Web.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): About half the planet lacks internet access. What effect does that have on poverty and inequality?

Digital technology is a game-changer in terms of capacity to study, capacity to get a job, capacity to earn a steady living.

But as digitalization accelerates, the gaps between the haves and have nots has been increasing. If we really want to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, especially decreasing poverty and feeding the world, we need to bring that 50 per cent down to 0 per cent.

UNEP: Developing countries aren’t the only places where you see a digital divide, are they?

EU: It’s within all countries. In industrial countries, there is a divide between urban and rural areas. There is a divide between wealthy neighbourhoods and neighbourhoods that are not. If you go into indigenous territories, there is a further divide.

A man holds up his phone towards the camera. On the phone is a painting of his that features soccer player Mohamed Salah
Wagdy Mohammed, 33, an artist, shows his paintings on papyrus of soccer player Mohamed Salah of Liverpool on his mobile phone in Cairo, Egypt REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

UNEP: You’ve said something as simple as an internet connection can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and counter other environmental threats. How is that?

EU: For the poorest and most marginalized, being connected can directly influence their ability to contribute to (climate change) adaptation and mitigation.

I love talking about agriculture because that’s an area I’ve worked in. We know that agriculture and related land use is responsible for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and that one-third of food is wasted. If farmers have access to tools that help them better manage how they’re producing food and help them get food to market, that will increase productivity and decrease loss.

UNEP: There are environmental downsides to technology. Data centres, like those used to mine cryptocurrencies, consume huge amounts of power. How can you bring the rest of the world online without a spike in the use of dirty energy?

EU: (We need to ask ourselves) are we actually planning digitalization in harmony with nature? There’s this fear that the more computer power, the more energy use. We need to disrupt this paradigm and find ways where increased computational power is actually linked to decreased energy use. This can be through renewable energy and it can also be done in passive ways. Those issues are complex. They’re not easy to handle.

UNEP: Every year, the world produces 50 million tonnes of electronic waste, much of which is not recycled. How can the world better handle old computers, mobile phones and other pieces of technology?

EU: (We need to examine) how to make our economies more circular and more grounded locally. This requires partnerships between private sector, governments, non-profit groups and academia.

UNEP: How do you create a circular economy, one where products are reused and not simply thrown away at the end of their life? Much of the global economy is built on production and consumption.

EU: Right now, we have great accounting systems to look at profit and loss. We need accounting systems that internalize environmental and climate externalities while empowering all stakeholders rather than just shareholders. We really need to reset capitalism in terms of how we are contributing to nature, to social good. That brings about sustainability because not only are we doing what is needed now, we’re also ensuring that we’re not colonizing the future by taking the resources of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

UNEP: Is digital technology reaching the poor quickly enough?

EU: We’re innovating at a phenomenal pace. However, scaling that innovation is going to require a lot more connectivity.

UNEP: Whose responsibility is that? Does it belong to governments or technology companies?

EU: The responsibility is held collectively. This is a really important time to reimagine governance in this world. Governments have power. The technology industry is creating a lot of powerful people. We need to look at power as our capacity to empower those who have less, not as a vehicle for accumulating more wealth.


This story was originally published on 27th April 2021 on the UNEP site: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/getting-planets-other-half-online