Journal of Industrial Ecology releases special issue on the environmental impacts and applications of Information & Communication Technology

Our guest blogger is Dr. Jonathan Koomey, a consulting professor at Stanford.  Koomey has been a friend and colleague for nearly two decades “” and we’ve spent a lot of time debunking mis-analysis in this area (see “Debunking the myth of the internet as energy hog, again: How information technology is good for climate“).

Readers of Climate Progress have shown keen interest in how Information & Communication Technology (ICT) might affect society’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. These readers will be interested to know that the Journal of Industrial Ecology has just released a special issue on the Environmental Applications of ICT that explores various effects of these technologies on environmental issues.  The entire special issue is available on the web, free of charge.

While others have investigated the direct environmental impacts of producing and operating IT equipment, this special issue focuses specifically on the effects of using IT in ways that reduce overall environmental impacts of producing a product or a service.  That would include applications of ICT such as

  • mapping energy use to localities across the U.S.
  • continuous fine-tuned energy auditing for households
  • smart irrigation controllers
  • Internet-based CO2 mitigation models
  • Web 2.0 technology for industrial ecology

Two articles of the special issue address the broader environmental impacts of ICT-namely, the net impacts of the ICT and Entertainment & Media sectors, as well as the impacts of various digital music delivery alternatives.

A few tidbits stand out.  In our article analyzing the environmental impacts of downloading music vs. buying it on a physical CD (Weber et al.), which is summarized in more detail here, we found emissions reductions of 40 to 80% for downloads, depending on assumptions about the transport mode for the physical CD, the size of the data files and whether the user burns the downloaded music onto a physical CD.

Berges et al. focus on non-intrusive monitoring of energy use in homes, which is one clever way to learn a whole lot more about how residences use energy (I’m also excited by other developments in wireless sensor technologies, but that’s another story).  And Mutchek and Williams explore the benefits of smart irrigation controls using a case study approach.  They found that these controls will need to become cheaper and more effective to be worthwhile in many cases, but the authors emphasize the large potential water savings from using information technology to control irrigation.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology is an international peer-reviewed bimonthly journal owned by Yale University and published by Wiley-Blackwell.  It is the official journal of the International Society for Industrial Ecology.

This freely available special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology is made possible through funding from the Leading Edge Forum of CSC, a well known IT services firm. The Leading Edge Forum is a global research and advisory program focusing on the intersection of business, IT, and management.

— Dr. Koomey, Consulting Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University at Stanford University.

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3 Responses to Journal of Industrial Ecology releases special issue on the environmental impacts and applications of Information & Communication Technology

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Much IT technology remains untapped for emissions reductions here in the US. Hotels throughout the rest of the world use microprocessor based room energy management systems, ensuring that the HVAC isn’t blasting away when the room is unoccupied. We typically don’t do this here in the US.

    I’ve learned firsthand that the reasons are cultural, for the same reasons that we buy SUV’s and live in big houses. Hotel facilities directors and even general managers are often politically conservative, and want to cultivate an image of abundance. They distrust careful use of resources, and tend to be cornucopians, an increasingly ridiculous point of view. Guests actually like room energy controls and are ahead of hotel management in this regard.

    There are huge opportunities in this and other areas to reverse this pattern. A cultural change is required, something that will take more than a little preaching in a TV soundbite. Somehow we have to undo the persistent damage done by leaders such as Bush (“go shopping”) and Reagan, who was equally captured by fossil fuel companies. Clinton and Obama have been passive, accomplishing little here.

    We use double the energy per capita of Europeans, and our quality of life is worse. Our leaders won’t lead, and this critical attitude change may have to come from the ground up.

  2. Ron Gremban says:

    The use for ICT with possibly the most potential to reduce carbon footprints is probably included in the special issue but not even mentioned in this article: the opportunity to substitute communications for travel.

    Telecommuting, as it becomes more ubiquitous, can save daily transportation costs and emissions while merely displacing office energy use from one location to another. Beyond email, discussion groups, blogs, wikis, etc, there are videophone, application sharing, whiteboard sharing, and many other tools for effective remote collaboration. Though often very effective — my CalCars colleague and I work from home offices and seldom meet — one thing not yet worked out is how to reproduce the value of random hallway meet-ups and discussions.

    Videoconferencing can increasingly substitute for face-to-face meetings, dramatically reducing travel costs in dollars and time as well as energy footprints, especially vs. the long-distance — increasingly international — travel often otherwise required of at least some participants. A fairly simple and potentially valuable enhancement to make existing systems more life-like and effective is synthetic stereo audio to match participant locations on the video screen (even when assembled differently for participants at each of multiple locations), enabling the human ability to disambiguate the simultaneous utterances of multiple speakers, as occurs all the time when face-to-face.

    It appears as if no one has yet come up with the killer app to effectively substitute teleconferencing for a physical technical, marketing, or sales conference. If and when that application arrives, much long-distance business travel will be avoidable, eventually eliminating annual increases — if not promoting reductions — in airline travel, hotel occupancy, etc.

  3. Reid Lifset says:

    Telecommuting can surely reduce emissions from work-related travel, but some research suggests that it may also induce other travel activity, for example, local shopping or leisure trips made possible by the time freed up by not commuting. See

    Mokhtarian, P. L. 2002. Telecommunications and travel: The case for complementarity. Journal of Industrial Ecology 6(2): 43-57.