Information and communication technology (ICT) has been an incredible boon to society, as laid out in detail in the ITIF report Digital Quality of Life: Understanding the Personal & Societal Benefits of the Information Technology Revolution. Indeed, ICT has greatly approved access to information, improved consumer choice, convenience, and safety, and facilitated communication, among many other benefits. As a new report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) notes, however, ICT also has the potential to significantly reduce energy use and thus mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. Specifically, the GeSI report, Measuring the Energy Reduction Impact of Selected Broadband-Enabled Activities Within Households, looks at eight online consumer activities – telecommuting, using the Internet as a primary news source, online banking, e-commerce, downloading video and music, e-education, digital photography and e-mail – and concludes that their greater adoption in the six countries featured in the study could achieve net energy savings equivalent to 2 percent of their total energy consumption. As such, GeSI’s work helps illustrate the importance and desirability of the continued global integration of ICT.
The new GeSI study comes to its net energy savings estimates by considering ICT-enabled activities as replacements for more energy-intensive conventional activities, such as digital photography and e-mail substituting trips to the photo shop and post office, respectively. Perhaps the most interesting finding is that telecommuting provides the largest energy benefit, constituting 86 percent of estimated net energy savings in the United States and 83 percent in the five European countries involved in the study, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Two percent energy savings across those six countries may not seem like a lot, but as the report notes, “[the eight] relatively small activities may generate a larger benefit than the 1.3 percent total carbon dioxide emissions impacts that result from the services provided by the entire ICT and electronic media industries.”
And the impact of ICT on carbon emissions isn’t limited to just telecommuting and sending more e-mails. The report is actually a follow-up to another GeSI study, SMART 2020, which found that large-scale information and communication technologies (ICT) implementation through smart buildings, smart grids, and other innovations could result in a 15 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions and save up to EUR 600 billion by 2020. Furthermore, as a 2011 ITIF report, Innovation for Control: Smart Technology to Empower Energy Producers and Users, points out, transforming the electricity grid to a smart grid with ICT could lead to economic growth and is a foundational technology in transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy. In fact, ITIF has estimated that $50 billion in smart grid investment over five years in the U.S. could create, on average, 239,000 jobs, with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimating that fully deploying a smart grid would directly reduce carbon dioxide emissions within the national electric power sector by 12 percent by 2030.
Both ITIF and GeSI point out that policymakers can be more proactive about encouraging the development and adoption of ICT. In the context of ICT-enabled consumer activities, for example, the new GeSI report recommends offering companies tax incentives at the national level to encourage telecommuting and investigate public-private partnerships at the local level to expand broadband adoption. In the context of shifting to a smart grid, ITIF’s Innovation for Control recommends more support for technology innovation through National Lab research and development and more government procurement of emerging ICT products so as to create early markets. The bottom line is that widespread deployment of ICT-enabled practices and improvements means an economy that is not only more energy productive, but also less carbon intensive. The shift to that economy, however, needs and deserves an encouraging policy environment.
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