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Abteilung für Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit

Solving the equation: renewable + digital = sustainable transition in Europe?

With the aim to identify challenges and opportunities of the digital use - in general and within the European energy transition strategy (European Green Deal), the participating students invited experts from France and Germany to a panel discussion. Prof. Reimund Schwarze moderated the event, which included a welcome address by Prof. Eva Kocher, Vice-President for teaching and learning at the Viadrina.

The panellists Anne Köhler, director for gas, decarbonisation and digitalization at the German association of Energy Market Innovators, Anne Rabot, expert on sustainable IT and member of the French network Green.IT, and Dr Oleksandr Sushchenko, researcher at the Viadrina on green economy and financing settled on one fundamental aspect: fighting climate change must remain the priority. And in this fight, “digital technologies cannot save the climate or at least not alone”, as emphasised by Anne Köhler.

Screenshot_600 ©Pensee Francais

Students invited experts from France and Germany to a panel discussion. Screenshot:
Pensee Francais

The first issue the panel discussed was the real risk of overdigitalization. Dr Oleksandr Sushchenko focused on digital ledger technologies, such as Blockchain. Although this technology can be criticised for consuming too much energy, it has been moving towards more energy efficient algorithms since its emergence. According to Anne Rabot, an environmental approach towards digital technologies includes not only energy efficiency gains but also eco-design and extending the lifespan of electronic equipment. In this approach dubbed digital sobriety, France is a clear front-runner. It adopted a repairability index, which is progressively appearing on products since January 1st. Questioned by the audience, Anne Köhler and Anne Rabot confirmed that such a regulation does not exist yet in Germany. Even though it may come quickly since the EU has taken first steps towards this at the end of 2020.

But this risk of overdigitalization can be put against its potential benefits. For Anne Köhler and Oleksandr Sushchenko, digital technologies can optimise an increasingly complex energy system and empower consumers who produce their own energy (so-called prosumers). Households and industrial consumers can save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Prof. Schwarze gave a concrete example: by optimising processes, companies from energy-intensive sectors, such as the chemical industry, can save as much emissions as a coal power plant. Although the technology exists, regulation prevents its deployment for now. Anne Köhler criticised the overregulation of technologies and the share of public subsidies, advocating for smarter regulation, which would enable market actors to invest more.

The speakers mostly agreed on what this twin transition could mean for Europe, France and Germany: becoming global leaders on their own terms. Anne Rabot advocates for creating a sustainable Silicon Valley in Europe. Anne Köhler added that Germany lacks a start-up culture: a flexible, agile and horizontal approach to problem-solving and innovation. Although she credits the investment in fundamental research for Germany’s current competitive advantage. Dr Oleksandr Sushchenko, expert for the United Nations Development Program in Ukraine, argues how the EU through the Green Deal can remain attractive and act as role-model for associated countries.

Finally, Anne Rabot underpins the need for more citizen participation in these debates, referring to the French experience of citizen convention on climate between 2019 and 2021. Given the existence of protest movements against technology deployment in France, like smart meters or 5G, she argues that citizens should decide which technologies are a necessity. She expressed her disappointment at the different governments’ approach, which she considers too focused on spending money and energy in order to push innovation and less focused on starting a democratic debate surrounding technology and its acceptability.

In sum, this discussion underlines one thing above all. Technological transformations are not merely a technical discussion among experts but require societal discussion. The participating students hope to contribute to this democratic debate by organising a second panel discussion in February and writing a position paper, which they will present at the French Embassy in March.

 (Claire Gauthier and students)