Is the Internet helping or hurting the planet?

The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, D.C., put out a press release earlier this month posing an attention-grabbing question in its headline: Is the Internet killing (or saving) the planet?

“With resource-saving notions like ‘the paperless office’ and ‘telecommuting,’ the digital age holds great environmental promise,” it said. “But have digital technologies really helped improve global sustainability?”

In raising this question, the institute referred to its latest book, State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, and specifically to a chapter in which Pomona College professor Richard Worthington looks at emerging digital systems with a skeptical eye.

Worthington writes that studies directly linking digital technologies to environmental benefits have yielded ambiguous results. Such benefits are difficult to measure, he contends – for example, isolating and tracking the Internet’s energy efficiency as other changes related to appliances, buildings, vehicles and energy generation unfold at the same time.

Then there’s the much debated “rebound effect” – the idea that any gains in efficiency offered through technology are offset, at least partially, by cost savings that can stimulate more consumption, and therefore more energy use. Worthington writes that this further complicates how to measure the benefits of digital technology. Those studies that claim such benefits, he adds, are questionable because they tend to be sponsored by global technology corporations.

He also takes shots at so-called digital democracy, challenging the notion that the Internet and other information technologies are creating new democratic practices. Acknowledging that falling technology and communications costs have allowed more people to become engaged citizens, by participating in campaigns or policy development, Worthington suggests results so far have been limited and that technologies may be exacerbating undemocratic tendencies.

In the U.S., for example, he argues that such technologies have made things worse by helping to reinforce biases and erode the quality of political communications – that is, bombarding people with impersonal, easily ignored appeals or shifting citizen engagement toward event-driven, short-term responses.

Worthington brings up many good points, but as is usually the case, technology cuts both ways on this issue. Yes, we do risk “amusing ourselves to death,” to use a term coined by the late Neil Postman, who argued in the mid-1980s that the growth of cable television was creating an oppressive addiction to amusement and detachment from our surroundings. The same argument can extend to the Internet and smart phones, as easily observed by anyone riding a bus during rush hour.

But Worthington seems to gloss over all the good – and potential for good – that has so far come from emerging digital technologies.


The Web We Weave

Two years ago, for example, Corporate Knights ran a package of stories called “Web of Sustainability,” which detailed how the Internet in combination with wireless, satellite and other digital technologies is empowering a new era of sustainability advocacy, behaviour and action. Here’s how I framed it in our introductory feature:

We take it for granted, but the reach and accessibility of the web we have spun have enhanced global sustainability efforts in a way that few could have anticipated in the pre-Google era. The ubiquity of wireless communications and the falling cost of data-gathering sensors have fed the trend and inspired a new generation of innovators determined to turn the “Internet of things” – a virtually unlimited mix of web-connected, information-collecting objects – into a force for good.

The story spins far beyond heightened transparency and accountability. And it builds on older, but no less important, notions of telework and telecommuting. There’s little doubt that web-based e-mail and video conferencing can shrink our environmental footprint by reducing the need for travel and paper. But something much bigger is going on. The web is enabling more sustainable business models, smarter buildings and cities, and our ability to deploy low-carbon energy systems. It is giving us better ways to measure and understand the planet’s health, while also helping us adapt to our changing climate.

The story talks about how digital technologies are enabling the collaborative or “sharing” economy, which includes services such as Car2Go, RelayRides, Airbnb and Uber. As author and economist Jeremy Rifkin told us, “We’re moving from ownership to access, and from markets to networks. You pay for the time you share a product.” The reduction in ownership leads to a reduction “stuff” and the use of resources needed to make it.

Digital technologies are also enabling citizen science, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, the power of which can all be (and is being) harnessed to enhance local, regional and global sustainability. Through instant knowledge sharing, communities threatened by resource-extraction projects are taking a more informed and effective stand, and doing so with great efficiency. As the president of the Mining Association of Canada once said, with the Internet “there grew a far greater ability of networks of people to shine a light on an industry that was largely out of sight, out of mind.”

Technology has empowered Chinese environmental protests, forcing their government to acknowledge and address an increasingly crippling pollution problem. The recent U.S.-China climate deal arguably would not have happened if not for the digital democratization of Chinese citizens. The same argument can be made for the Arab Spring, during which mobile phones and Twitter became the de facto tools of communication and organization.

And the “Internet of things” is helping us take the pulse of cities, forests, oceans and climate in a way never before imagined, while also being used to improve the efficiency of business, buildings and cities, and planning of more sustainable communities.

Corporate Knights is currently doing research on global tree loss and forest gain using a recently launched online tool called Global Forest Watch, a collaboration between the World Resources Institute and Google. Detailed and previously inaccessible satellite data is now at my fingertips. In a sense, we all have the potential to become environmental watchdogs.

And as I write this, I just received a press release from IBM and the University of Alberta, which are working together to monitor climate change with more speed and accuracy than ever. They’re using software that performs real-time analysis of more than 10,000 data points per second. The data, ranging from CO2 levels to humidity to temperature, are gathered through more than 500 sensors located in some of the world’s most remote ecosystems.

“The technology provides researchers – and eventually policy makers – with an unprecedented ability to predict environmental events, such as forest fires and drought, and to apply insights to more accurately forecast how boreal and tropical forests are returning after deforestation and disturbances,” according to the release.

I know – it’s easy to get caught up in the “wow” factor. Marketing and public relations departments rely on this reaction, and culturally techno-optimism seems to be our default position on such things. But these technologies and their potential to make the world a more sustainable place are real. The impact they have depends on how we choose to leverage them.


Jevons Paradox

Concerning the controversial “rebound effect” – also known as the Jevons paradox – there is no shortage of differing opinion on this. The Breakthrough Institute, an energy think tank based in California, believes the rebound effect can erase a majority of the gains achieved through energy efficiency. In an October blog post, Breakthrough analyst Alex Trembath argued that such a position is supported by a recent report from the International Energy Agency. The agency’s report “concludes that efficiency rebounds can and do reach at least as high as 60 per cent, with rebound in developing countries likely much higher than in rich countries,” Trembath wrote.

The American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy (ACEEE) used its own blog to publicly take issue with Trembath’s assertion, restating research that suggests the rebound effect averages about 20 per cent. “The truth is that for 40 years energy efficiency has had a dramatic effect on worldwide energy consumption,” ACEEE executive director Steven Nadel wrote. “In the United States, if we were to use energy today at the rate we were in 1974, we would be consuming more than twice the amount that we are actually using.”

The Breakthrough Institute may be exaggerating, but the honest answer is that we don’t really know for sure, which is essentially Worthington’s point. If I drive a more efficient vehicle am I likely to drive more? If I save money on energy efficiency measures, am I going to take that luxury cruise? Tough to say – depends on the person and the socioeconomic context.

What I do know is there’s a good chance I’ll leave the lights on more if I’m using LED lighting, but I probably won’t do more laundry if my washing machine and dryer are more efficient, or wash more dishes if my dishwasher is more efficient. If power plants or the grid get smarter and more efficient, does that affect how much electricity I use? Not if it doesn’t lead to lower prices or if there’s a carbon tax in places, both of which can be controlled.

A consortium called GreenTouch announced two networking equipment innovations this week that, according to a statement, “will reduce overall energy consumption in wireline access networks by an impressive 46 per cent.” Is that going to lead to more Internet use? I’m guessing it won’t, or at least not much.

That said, we know that e-mail technology has led to an unprecedented increase in communications that never existed 20 years ago, much of it spam. That, some argue, makes it no better – and possibly worse – than traditional snail mail. All those massive data centres, after all, consume vast amounts of energy.

Where I do agree with The Breakthrough Institute is that more sophisticated research is needed. Modeling efforts, wrote Trembath, “should aim for highly disaggregated estimates of rebound effects, from end-use consumption to economy-wide effects at various levels of development. Models must also consider the dynamic relationship between different types of rebound responses – take-back effects, spending effects, investment effects, macroeconomic price responses, etc. – and other energy and climate policies, including emissions pricing.”

In the end, it’s fair to say that Worthington isn’t trying to downplay the potential that digital technologies have to make the world more sustainable, he’s questioning our often blind love of and obsession with emerging digital technologies, which too often escapes the scrutiny they deserve.

“There is little choice about engaging digital systems in environmental governance, but naïve attachment to them will perpetuate distorted patterns of investment and other features of the socioeconomic model that has generated the environmental crisis,” writes Worthington. “Critical engagement, careful strategizing, and most of all a commitment to profound change are preconditions for using these systems for different ends.”

Not an unreasonable conclusion.

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