Government must focus policy on sustainable digitalisation

Digital technology and data use are changing our society in fundamental ways. These changes are having a major impact on the sustainability of our living environment. Although digitalisation and sustainability are inextricably connected, government policy fails to recognise this connection. In its advisory report about ‘digitalisation and the transition towards a sustainable society, the Dutch Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (Rli) argues that the national government must intervene much more actively and utilise the advantages the digital world offers to further the green transformation. This advisory report was presented on February 9th to the State Secretary for Infrastructure & Public Works, the State Secretary for Internal Affairs & Kingdom Relations and the cabinet members for Economic Affairs and Climate.

The digitalised living environment is not necessarily a sustainable living environment

Behind the living environment that we see and experience lies a digital world of data, platforms and online services. Increasingly, the digital world is defining the ways we live, travel, spend our leisure time, consume, and so many other aspects of our daily lives. The digital transformation of our society has brought a great deal of convenience and prosperity to our lives. Digital technology and data can have positive effects for sustainability, for example by making production processes more efficient and by enabling us to integrate solar and wind power into our existing energy system. But digitalisation does not automatically make our society more sustainable. It is also a driver of increasing consumption, creates growth in resource-intensive industries and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Active governance is needed

The government is actively pursuing policy to make the living environment more sustainable, and is taking a number of steps in the physical living environment to achieve targets relating to greenhouse gases, the climate and resource consumption. But the digital side of the living environment is not being given sufficient attention. The focus in the government’s digitalisation policy on the economic opportunities digitalisation presents, fair competition and the protection of civil rights is clear; yet the sustainability effects of digitalisation are conspicuously underemphasised. Likewise, in sustainability policy insufficient attention is being given to the indispensable role of digital technology and data in the achievement of the sustainability goals. Focused interventions by the Netherlands and the European Union in the digital world are clearly necessary and justified. The government is responsible for a sustainable living environment, and digitalisation is changing the starting points for achieving it. Digitalisation is creating new opportunities for government intervention.

In its advice, the Rli makes three primary recommendations for active government intervention:

  1. the government has to more consistently apply digital technology and data towards its sustainability policy
  2. in its digitalisation policy, the government must ensure that the digitalisation of society is sustainable.
  3. governmental agencies must be better prepared for developments in the digital realm.

Pivotal role of digital platforms

Digital platforms are a vital element of the digitalisation of society, and this makes them the best leverage point for the measures intended to further the sustainability of the living environment. In the living environment, digital platforms connect supply and demand for a huge variety of goods and services. In the process, they generate, analyse and process large amounts of data on that environment, from the supply and consumption of energy to travel patterns to consumer goods.

This puts digital platforms in the position to increasingly dictate the rules in the market for things like mobility, leisure time, energy and raw materials, with all the impact on the living environment that this implies. Accordingly, the Rli considers it of essential importance for the public sector to understand this, and set requirements on digital platforms in the interests of sustainability. This is why the Rli also believes that there is a need for a European regulation that will make it possible to set sustainability requirements on these platforms. But the Dutch government must go even further, and investigate the options to, through the platforms, factor the negative environmental impact of products and services into prices.

Note to editors

For information about the advisory report, please contact project leader Bart Swanenvleugel at or +31 6 52012691.

To request interviews, please contact communications advisor Miep Eisner,, +31 6 15369339.

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About the Rli

The Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (the Raad voor de leefomgeving en infrastructuur, or Rli) is an independent advisory board for the Dutch government and parliament. It provides solicited and unsolicited advice on overall policy pertaining to the sustainable development of the human environment and the physical infrastructure. In particular, the Rli addresses strategic public issues relating to spatial planning and the economy, housing, the environment, food and raw materials, nature, agriculture, mobility and safety. Its chairman is Jan Jaap de Graeff.