Brussels, 30 Nov 2004
New research into the potential impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on environmental sustainability has concluded that they could have a positive or a negative effect, depending on the design of supporting policies.
The study, entitled 'The future impact of ICTs on environmental sustainability', was commissioned by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies at the Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). It sought to assess how telecommunications and information technologies would affect Europe's environmental performance between now and 2020 according to several key indicators, including: the volume of transport relative to GDP; energy consumption and the share of renewables; and the management of municipal waste.
Overall, the report concluded that: 'ICTs could improve the situation, reinforcing positive effects in the environment, or they could worsen the situation. This suggests that 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.'
According to the authors, such negative 'rebound effects' can occur when efficiency gains stimulate increased demand - to such an extent that the originally positive environmental gains are counterbalanced or even outweighed.
A perfect example of this phenomenon, according to the report, is in the transport sector, in which it states that: 'Time reduction and network capacity increases by intelligent transport systems will pave the way for more demand for transport, unless measures are taken to limit growth.' The authors suggest that internalising the cost of environmental externalities - in particular by raising energy and fuel prices - could bring demand down to a level where transport is no longer linked to economic growth.
Additionally, virtual mobility technologies won't generate significant transport savings unless policies are introduced to support them. The report suggests the promotion of virtual meetings as the most effective e-application for reducing the environmental impact of passenger transport.
In terms of energy consumption, ICTs can play two main roles: that of supporting energy saving measures in buildings, and improving the rational use of heating energy. Under energy saving, the report draws a distinction between 'hard' measures that can only be applied to the small numbers of buildings that are newly built or renovated annually, and 'soft' measures that are, in principle, applicable to every building 'Although it is highly uncertain under what conditions 'soft' measures supported by ICTs (such as intelligent heating systems) operate effectively and satisfactorily for users, this issue deserves consideration because of the high levels of energy consumed,' the report argues.
The contribution of ICTs to the management of waste is also divided into two sections: the generation of waste electrical equipment, and the management and recycling of municipal solid waste. Under the first section, the report warns that between now and 2020 'ICTs would add significantly to non-recycled municipal solid waste if no measures are found to limit the growth of ICT waste.' To do so, the authors suggest providing incentives for producers to design and sell ICT products with a long lifespan, thus reducing the 'churn rate'. In the second scenario, the report sees ICTs providing intelligent systems for recycling and other forms of recovery, thereby decreasing the waste that has to be disposed of or incinerated.
In conclusion, therefore, the report argues that: 'If ICTs are to enable a decrease in absolute energy consumption, policy must be designed so that it promotes the environmentally positive impacts of ICTs, whilst inhibiting the negative ones.' Finally, in recognition of the large uncertainty that exists in many of the areas covered in the analysis, the report's authors call for more research in order to gain a fuller understanding of the role of ICTs in meeting environmental policy goals.
To read a copy of the report, please consult the following web address:
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