Last month I attended Google’s invitation-only “How green is the Internet?” summit with leaders from industry, government, NGOs, and academia. In a passionate keynote address, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore likened today’s climate-related news to a “nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” He also emphasized the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector’s important role in helping to mitigate the coming “climate catastrophe.”
Those sobering words were followed by rapid-fire presentations of studies—all of which attempted to quantify either the Internet’s environmental impact or the environmental benefits of digital versus analog processes. One such study, which I contributed to, examined the impacts of physical CDs versus downloaded music.
Lessons about ICT
Frankly, I’m not sure there’s an answer to “How green is the Internet?” But the conference left me with a few impressions:
- The ICT industry genuinely wants to understand and reduce its environmental impact.
- ICT companies are leaders in energy efficiency, supply chain transparency, and demand for carbon-free energy.
- The ICT sector can reduce environmental impacts, but rebound effects may reduce the gains.
- The societal and economic benefits of ICT justify further growth, even in the face of environmental concerns.
All that said, my main takeaway is that no matter how much good the ICT industry does with our products (devices, software, and services), we also have an obligation, and often a strong incentive, to look for ways to make them greener.
ICT reduces environmental impacts
Let’s look at tax filing as an example of how ICT is better for the environment. Before electronic filing and Turbo Tax, I’d go to the library, pick up a form, complete it by hand, put it in a stamped envelope, and have it driven halfway across the country to an IRS office. Even if the IRS and Intuit have inefficient data centers with underutilized servers, e-filing has to be greener than that.
As with most ICT solutions, an inefficient data center is actually a good problem to have. There’s an incentive to make ICT-based solutions more efficient because, unlike with analog solutions, their operational costs are almost entirely controlled by solution providers. More efficient ICT solutions require fewer IT resources and less energy to run, which in turn reduces data center space (and construction) and carbon emissions. And the incentive to be more efficient will only grow as carbon-based energy sources get more expensive.
Rebound effects diminish those gains
But not so fast. What about those rebound effects I mentioned? Even so-called ICT-for-green solutions can create bigger environmental impacts than would exist without them. For example, teleconferencing into a meeting is better for the environment than traveling there. But what about the travel that stems from those conversations? It could be argued (as it was at the event) that Internet-based technology drives additional travel demand, and even makes more frequent travel easier and cheaper through richer e-commerce experiences.
ICT’s benefits still outweigh its costs
This dichotomy highlights the fact that the Internet’s primary purpose isn’t to make things greener but to make societies and economies richer and more vibrant. Should we tell the 4 billion people who don’t have Internet access that they can’t have it because of the environmental impact? Of course not. We should get them connected—in the greenest way possible. The environmental impact won’t be zero, but the societal benefits will far outweigh the environmental costs.
I’m reminded that technology is morally neutral. It’s not good or bad, it just is. But pound for pound, an Internet-based economy is less carbon intensive, so our job in the ICT industry is to make every instance of technology as green as it can be. That way, as governments inevitably deploy the Internet-based technologies that drive efficiency and sustainability, they get the benefits of innovation with fewer environmental impacts. That’s a future I’m eager to see.
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