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Future Impact of ICTs on Environmental Sustainability, The

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Affiliation: 

Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (Erdmann), Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Hilty), Forum for the Future (Goodman), International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University (Arnfalk)

Publication Date

August 2004

This 68-page synthesis report describes the methodology and results of the modelling project "The Future Impact of ICT on Environmental Sustainability", which is an effort to explore qualitatively and
to assess quantitatively the way in which information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as computers, mobile phones, and microchips can influence environmental sustainability. Commissioned by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), the project covers the member states of European Union (EU 15) plus accession countries (AC 10) until 2020. To define environmental sustainability, the project took 5 indicators as a reference:

  1. volume of transport relative to gross domestic product
  2. modal split of transport
  3. energy consumption and share of renewables
  4. greenhouse gas emissions
  5. municipal waste collected but not recycled.

"The general conclusion was that ICTs can modify the value of these five indicators. ICTs could improve the situation, reinforcing positive effects in the environment, or they could worsen the situation. To arrive at this finding, the project implemented a 5-step methodology, which involved:

  1. Choosing the aforementioned environmental indicators
  2. Undertaking a literature review of the environmental impacts of selected ICT applications, including: the impacts and opportunities created by the physical existence of ICTs and the processes involved (first order effects); the impacts and opportunities created by the ongoing use and application of ICTs (second order effects); the impacts and opportunities created by the aggregated effects of large numbers of people using ICTs over the medium to long term (third order effects).
  3. Developing 3 consistent scenarios by identifying highly unpredictable factors likely to influence the development and use of ICTs in the future: technocracy (government and business together produce high-speed, growth-focused technology development), government first (heavy-handed government steers technology
    development to favour social outcomes, while business competes to exploit a slowing market), stakeholders democracy (a positive environment for sustainable
    development, but with outcomes that are not always straightforward).
  4. Building a simulation model to quantify the future impact of ICTs on the environmental indicators for the 3 scenarios.
  5. Setting the project results in the current EU policy context.

In section 3.3 of the paper, the authors highlight 11 critical areas where ICT applications have a significant effect on the chosen environmental indicators, and rank them in order of significance. For example, while ICT generates waste electronic material (e-waste), which can be problematic for disposal or recycling, virtual meetings (e.g. videoconferencing) can obviate the need for passenger transport, which "is much more effective than telework in environmental terms."

The authors advance a number of specific recommendations in several key categories; they also identify some cross-cutting issues, suggesting that:

  • Customers should be supplied with sufficient information to enable them to make environmentally aware decisions when selecting ICT products and services. This information sharing process could draw on product declarations, energy-labelling and eco-labelling schemes. "This information should cover the whole life-cycle impact and make it possible to benchmark the environmental performance of different products and services."
  • Industrial designers' capacity to take environmental considerations into account should be strengthened by promoting demonstration projects that involve actors from the entire life-cycle chain in finding sustainable solutions for product and service design. "The increased dissemination of information on cost-effective, energy- and material-optimising ICT solutions for industry, paying special attention to reaching small and medium enterprises, would also be advisable."
  • The promotion of efficiency improvements in industry should be combined with the stimulation of innovation, placing particular emphasis on the shift toward systems which do not sell the product itself, but rather the service that is offered by the product. "Although there are widely diverging opinions concerning an ICT-based product-to-service shift and its possible energy saving and dematerialisation effects up until 2020, it is again the significant potential for change that makes this issue important."

In conclusion, the authors observe that "there are significant opportunities for improving environmental sustainability through ICTs, which can rationalise energy management in housing (or facilities), make passenger and freight transport more efficient, and enable a product-to-service shift across the economy." However, "environmental policies have to be designed to ensure that ICT applications make a beneficial contribution to environmental outcomes, and, at the same time, suppress rebound effects."

Source: 

"Defining Environmental Sustainability", by Carlos Rodriguez Casal and Lorenz Erdmann, i4d, Vol. III, No. 8, August 2005 [PDF].

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