Introduction.The publication of alarming statistics on anthropogenic climate change has prompted concern about the cost to the environment of society’s ever-increasing reliance on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). However, studies have shown that the current per-capita green house gas (GHG) footprint of ICT use is not in itself significant when compared to other sectors. What is of concern is the exponential growth of this sector; the speed of ICT adoption and integration into emerging economies such as China and India for example (The Boston Consulting Group Inc., 2012).
When the data relating to the ICT sector’s GHG carbon footprint is looked at in isolation and added to our current carbon debt, it is discouraging. However, it is important to avoid the mistake of forecasting a Multhusian-type catastrophe due to a misunderstanding of the role of technology in a sustainable and productive future. This essay will argue that our increasing ICT dependence, rather being another mechanism of environmental destruction, has enormous potential to reduce the impact of human activities on the environment.
This is because it is the ICT industry that will be fundamentally important in reducing the carbon footprint of the other sectors. Research has shown that, through the innovation of smart systems and the dematerialisation of resources and so on in other sectors, massive reductions in GHGs can be achieved. It will be shown that the smart technologies of the future will improve carbon reduction outcomes in many primary GHG producing industries, such as the electricity sector, through the monitoring, administration, accountability of carbon producers, the education of consumers and the optimising of processes that would otherwise be inefficient and polluting.
Any study looking to mitigate the effects of human activities causing climate change has to take into consideration the way individuals perceive their own carbon footprint in conjunction with their ability to change their behaviour in response to this understanding (Wiggins, et al., 2009). The Energy Star program initiated in the United States in 1993 is a good example of how making energy data available to consumers can bring positive environmental results. This initiative was successful in educating consumers about the environmental impacts and running costs of comparable products, and led to a change consumption behaviours.
As a result, the Energy Star program greatly contributed to an overall reduction of GHG emissions in the U.S. (Sanchez, et al., 2008). Although this was a relatively low-tech program, it proved that easily accessible energy data in the hands of consumers is a powerful force in driving demand for efficient appliances, while also allowing consumers to feel confident that they are reducing their carbon footprint.
Therefore, with the almost universal uptake of ICTs in households and businesses in developed countries, the potential for realtime feedback to users of their electricity consumption is unprecedented. Whether it is via wifi enabled smart meters connected to local area networks (LAN) or individually connected appliances feeding information to PCs and smartphones, the possibilities for environmental savings arising from informed consumers accessing their consumption data graphically in real time is substantial (Wiggins, et al., 2009).
It could be that consumers of the future will be able to turn lights out, air conditioners off and hibernate any unnecessary devices even after they have left the house or workplace. Another possibility is for users to utilise software systems to automate and monitor electricity use in homes and businesses to optimise the performance of appliances.
For example, smart lighting alone has the potential to enable energy savings as high as 30 percent in households and 25 percent in commercial buildings (Catulli & Fryer, 2012). Taking into consideration that the electricity sector produces 21percent of all global GHG emissions (The Boston Consulting Group Inc., 2012), the potential of ICT enabled solutions to make a real difference in power consumption behaviour and attitudes is considerable. This can only be achieved in a technologically literate society, however. This should not be a serious issue as the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of new technologies in the last few decades has proven that consumers are receptive to innovation.
Although notable global GHG emission reductions can be made by electricity consumers using smart systems to monitor and optimise electricity use in residential and business settings, it is the optimisation and “greening” of electricity production and delivery that promises to deliver the greatest results in this sector (Australian Information Industry Association, 2010). However, carbon reduction gains can only be achieved through the use of smart grid technology (Vijayapriya, et al., 2011).
A smart grid is defined as “an electrical grid that uses information and communications technology to gather and act on information, such as data on the behaviours of suppliers and consumers, in an automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.” (Boston Consulting Group Inc., 2012).
In the past there has been resistance, mostly due to implementation costs, by electricity providers to upgrade the current “dumb grid” architectures to ICT incorporated smart grids. However, current traditional grid systems are incapable of providing for the needs of a modern economy and are overdue for modernisation—electricity outages in the U.S., for example, cost more than 100 billion dollars annually and another 16 billion dollars is lost due to transmission congestion during peak load times (Hourihan & Stepp, 2011). In the U.S., electricity generation and distribution makes up 42 percent of the GHG emissions—of this, 37 percent is from coal-fired power stations (Boston Consulting Group Inc., 2012)—so it is a sector that needs fundamental restructuring in order to meet GHG reduction commitments.
In the dumb grid world, electricity is poured into the grid without understanding the demands of individual households (users are only seen in aggregate). This inefficiency requires electricity providers to power-up more expensive standby plants during times of heavy demand. On the other hand, if ICT systems were monitoring demand they would be able to respond to realtime peaks and troughs in electricity load, thus reducing the need for standby electricity plants and improving power supply reliability (Australian Information Industry Association, 2010).
In addition to optimising electricity delivery, it is ICT systems that provide the ability to decentralise power production. Bringing online alternative energy sources such as wind, solar and tidal power generators requires ICT solutions to manage variances in production. Without complex systems to manage dispersed electricity production, renewable sources would not be viable (Petinrin & Shaaban, 2012). Although traditional power suppliers are resistant to move away from cheap sources of power generation such as coal and gas (Petinrin & Shaaban, 2012), and legislation and incentives will most likely be required to usher them towards a low carbon economy, the future of ICT enabled solutions are cause for optimism.
Another example of how ICTs can contribute towards sustainable productivity is through the dematerialisation and virtualisation of resources and workflows. Although the focus of this essay has mainly been on reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is also the concern of productivity versus natural resource management. There are, even with current technologies, ICT enabled solutions capable of reducing natural resource consumption while also allowing growth in productivity.
Critics of the ICT sector’s ability to move society towards the dematerialisation of resources maintain that, although environmental gains may be made through the reduction of physical media, its transportation, its storage, as well as the downsizing of retail venues for these physical products, these gains are offset by the mass uptake of media playing devices such as the iPod (Hogg & Jackson, 2008). However, much has happened since Hogg and Jackson voiced their concerns in 2008.
For example, the popular—or as it has been suggested “slavish”—uptake of smartphones, has also caused a sharp reduction in sales of single purpose devices. This is because the modern smartphone is not just a phone but also a diary, a camera, a music player, a satellite navigation device and email client.
As a result, the “rebound effect” of new technologies damaging the environment in one area while benefitting it in another, has diminished in regards to, not only music media dematerialisation, but many other media types due to product convergence (Conroy, 2011). The benefits of the digitised production and dematerialisation of movie and music media, as well as paper (via email, ePublication) do have a caveat, however. Although, product convergence has electricity consumption reduction and product lifespan benefits (Conroy, 2011), further innovation is needed to improve the recyclablity of devices.
The evolution of Apple Corporation’s devices shows that industry leaders are conscious of this need and are creating products that are reducing eWaste. As evidenced, the role-on effects of digitising and virtualising services and products are vast. For example, a person can now wake in the morning and view their mail, morning paper, magazines, study and work literature all on an iPad which uses a meagre 0.035kilowatt-hour per charge (Lerch, et al., 2011), while saving on the industrial production of paper, printing, carbon intensive transportation and so on (Roberts, 2009). Furthermore, the saidhypothetical person may also have the opportunity to study or work from home (teleworking), thus reducing their transportation carbon footprint. They may also choose to conference via Skype, and thus save on carbon intensive national and international travel. Even utilising services such as internet banking, online shopping and accessing government departments online have cumulative environmental benefits (Roberts, 2009).
It is beyond the scope of this essay to go into the actual statistical benefits of the virtualisation and dematerialisation of goods, services and workflows versus business-as-usual (BAU) statistics, but a quick review of the referenced reports and articles in this essay should be enough to cause even the most luddite reader to rethink whether technology is in fact enslaving us or emancipating us, moving us toward environmental catastrophe or sustainability.
Conclusion.Although it may make complete sense, environmentally at least, to repent our reliance on technology and return to a pre-Industrial Revolution existence. Trying to convince any modern population to roll back gains in healthcare, education, travel, communication or even clothes laundering, would require a messianic feat of salesmanship. The reality is that it is doubtful that there is a democratically elected government on the planet that would survive an attempt to legislate this sort of regression.
Therefore, it is clear that technological solutions to environmental issues are required. However, technology on its own does not have the capacity to avert the catastrophes outlined by climate scientists. It is only technologically enabled changes in attitudes, behaviours and practices that can change our environmental trajectory radically, realistically.
As has been demonstrated in this essay, it is possible to have our cake and eat it, but only if society is willing bear the implementation pain of adopting “greener” technologies. When weighed against the profound austerity proposed by radical regressionists or the calamitous consequences of trying to go forward with business as usual, the sacrifices needed to move society towards a green, productive, progressive and technologically optimised future are not only obvious but obligatory. Therefore, it is not technology that society should fear but its lack of timely implementation.
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