7.5. Digital transformation and the environment

The production and use of information products is associated with the generation of “greenhouse gases”, such as carbon dioxide (CO2). The amount of CO2 produced by information industries, relative to the amount of output produced, varies greatly between countries. Air Emissions Accounts (based on the UN System of Environmental Economic Accounting), show that in most European countries less than 5 tonnes of CO2 are produced for each million USD of output from the information industries. Meanwhile rates of over 20 tonnes have been observed in Poland, Slovak Republic and Hungary. Many different factors contribute to this situation, including the prevalence of ICT manufacturing and the extent to which each country relies on fossil fuels for electricity production. The carbon-intensity of information industries has remained stable or fallen in many countries since 2008, with Spain, Poland and Hungary as notable exceptions.

It is also possible to examine the “carbon footprint” of information industry products consumed in different countries. These products account for almost 7% of carbon embodied in products consumed in Ireland, but for less than 2% in Saudi Arabia and Israel. ICTs and electronics goods are key products in this regard, accounting for the majority of emissions in most countries.

These goods also constitute an environmental challenge at the end of their lifecycle, creating increasing levels of electronic waste. Improper and unsafe treatment and disposal through open burning or in dumpsites poses significant risks to the environment and human health, and also present several challenges to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The proliferation of digital technologies to more users and into ever more types of devices, coupled with rapid technological advances, is also resulting in shortening replacement cycles that are driving e-waste generation (Baldé et al., 2017).

In OECD countries, 17 kg of e-waste was produced per inhabitant in 2016, equivalent to 41 kg per USD 100 000 of GDP. E-waste per capita ranges from almost 30 kg per person in Norway to 8 kg in Turkey and less in countries such as China and India - broadly consistent with the penetration of digital technologies in these countries. Due to its relatively high GDP per inhabitant, Luxembourg has the lowest rate of e-waste relative to GDP at 21 kg.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that technology can, in some cases, substitute for other polluting activities. For example, by enabling teleworking technology may contribute to reducing emissions related to commuting (OECD, 2010). The environmental challenges created by e-waste, which often contains hazardous and environmentally damaging substances, can be mitigated through careful management. In European countries, the volume of e-waste recycled or re-used was around 40% of the amount generated, reaching 64% in Sweden.

Did You Know?

ICTs and electronic goods are a major contributor to information industry carbon emissions, as well as representing the main component of e-waste.


E-waste refers to all items of electrical and electronic equipment that have been discarded as waste without the intent of re-use (STEP, 2014). It includes cooling and freezing equipment, screens and monitors, lamps, large equipment (e.g. washing machines and solar panels), small equipment (e.g. vacuum cleaners, microwaves and electronic toys), and small IT and telecommunications equipment such as mobile phones, personal computers and printers.

E-waste generated refers to the amount of e-waste generated in a given year. E-waste recycled or reused refers to the amount of e-waste collected through official channels and subsequently used again for the same purpose or reprocessed into other products, materials or substances.

Carbon dioxide is a gas arising from the combustion of carbon that is emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere and is one cause of climate change. Carbon footprint refers to the carbon dioxide emissions embodied in products.


Estimates of CO2 emissions by information industries come from the OECD, Air Emissions Accounts Database, which integrates economic and environmental information from national sources and international databases using National Accounts concepts, definitions and classifications. The “carbon footprint” estimates the accumulated CO2 from all stages of production and distribution emitted by domestic and foreign firms, during the production of final goods and services. Estimates combine global input-output tables with CO2 emissions from fuel use, (https://www.iea.org/geco/emissions) per unit of production, for each industry in each country.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 (Baldé et al., 2017) estimated stocks of e-products for each country, and from those the amounts being discarded in each year. Due to a lack of direct data on sales of e-products, new additions to the stock are estimated based on imports less exports. Domestic production is also included for EU countries and Norway.

Recycling and reuse figures are provided to Eurostat by national authorities, under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, based on surveys and administrative data from waste collectors and treatment facilities.

Carbon dioxide emissions produced by information industries, 2016
Tonnes of carbon dioxide per million USD of information industry output

Source: OECD calculations based on Air Emissions Accounts and Annual National Accounts Database, December 2018. See 1. StatLink contains more data.

1. For Ireland and Switzerland, data refer to 2015.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933931048

Carbon footprint of information industry products, 2015
As percentage of total demand-based emissions

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD, Inter-Country Input-Output (ICIO) Database, http://oe.cd/icio, December 2018 and IEA (2018). See 1. StatLink contains more data.

1. The carbon footprint of information industry products is a measure of the accumulated CO2 emissions from all stages of production and distribution, by domestic and foreign firms, that are required to produce information industry final goods and services. The estimates are derived by combining global input-output tables with CO2 emissions from fuel use per unit of production, for each industry in each country.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933931067

E-waste generation and recycling or reuse, 2016
Kilogrammes per capita and per 100 000 USD of GDP

Source: OECD based on Baldé et al. (2017); Eurostat, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Statistics and OECD, Annual National Accounts Database, December 2018. See 1.

1. Electronic waste (or e-waste) refers to all items of electric and electronic equipment and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste, without the intent of re-use. In this analysis, it covers six waste categories: 1. Temperature equipment; 2. Screens, monitors; 3. Lamps; 4. Large equipment; 5. Small equipment; and 6. Small IT and telecommunication equipment.

E-waste ratios per USD are based on the GDP expressed in current PPPs for the year 2016.

For Italy and Slovenia, data refer to 2015.

Data on recycling or reuse are only available for the European Union countries and Norway.

 StatLink https://doi.org/10.1787/888933931086

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