Digital : A law to curb the inflation of carbon emissions

Olivier ABULI, advice and analyses consultant

January 10, 2022

The law to reduce the environmental footprint of the digital sector in France (REEN) was passed in mid-November, at a time when the international community was drawing up a mixed assessment of COP26. The French parliamentarians wanted to "do a useful job" by laying the foundations of a pioneering legislation to control the environmental footprint of the digital sector.

The law to reduce the environmental footprint of the digital sector in France (REEN) was passed in mid-November, at a time when the international community was drawing up a mixed assessment of COP26. The French parliamentarians wanted to "do a useful job" by laying the foundations of a pioneering legislation to control the environmental footprint of the digital sector.

Their observation was that with the development of uses, carbon emissions linked to digital technology (2% of national emissions) are already reaching those of air transport and threaten to account for 7% by 2040.

Raising awareness of the impact of digital technology

This first objective aims at both educational and concrete dimensions, in order to gradually change behaviours towards a form of « digital sobriety ».

Training and information

As far as this first axis is concerned, the REEN law plans to include this awareness in the modules that are already taught to schoolchildren on ICTs from primary school to the last year in High School. At university level, the ecodesign of digital services will be integrated into computer engineers’ basic training.

As regards information for the general public, ADEME and the electronic communications regulatory authority (ARCEP) are jointly responsible for setting up and running an "observatory of the environmental impact of digital technologies".

Lifespan of digital devices

The manufacturing of terminals accounts for 70% of the carbon footprint of the digital industry in France. Extending their lifespan is therefore essential to control it.

The November 15th law sets out milestones for market players. They announce potential future orientations to fight against « more and more expectations » : built-in planned hardware and software obsolescence, limited availability of spare parts, restrictions on use or reuse by proprietary systems...

Finally, the text raises the bar for recycling and reusing of digital goods by relying on facilities granted to the social economy (SSE) while strengthening the collection obligations for producers and their associated relays : distributors and associated eco-organizations.

Improving the sobriety of infrastructures and networks

The environmental conditions that apply to data centers in order to benefit from a reduced tax rate on final consumption of electricity (TICFE) will be raised from 2022.

In addition, the Territorial Climate-Air-Energy Plans (PCAET), which are to be drawn up by local authorities, will have to take into account the issue of heat recovery from these data centers.

Another provision will allow mayors in low-density rural areas to ask operators to justify when they don’t want to use a common relay site or share a tower to deploy their networks.

Developing a responsible digital strategy at the territorial level :

In addition to the above mentioned points, municipalities and inter-municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants will have to adopt a responsible digital strategy from 2025, including territorial objectives and measures to reduce the environmental footprint.

Re-using decommissioned equipment from State and local authorities :

The REEN law also establishes the general principle of reusing or donating functional equipment that is disposed of by public administrations. The list of eligible beneficiaries (public utility associations and educational spheres in schools and universities) is extended to SSE companies and approved reuse organizations.

By enacting these measures in a constrained calendar (COP26, adoption window at the end of the mandate), the parliamentarians have assumed to have traced this path in order to send strong signals to the industrialists, professionals and users of digital technology.

To make the text fully applicable and coherent, additional analyses and sector-based studies on implementation are still necessary : for example, the government is expected to submit impact reports within six months on subjects as diverse as online gaming, the use of VOD, the development of crypto-currencies or the reprocessing capacities of recycling and reuse channels.

Nevertheless, a vision and the bases of a law are now defined.

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