It is normally assumed that computers and the internet are good things for the environment because of all the efficiencies they bring to industry and individuals. But is there really an environmental improvement?
The answer to this question may be quite important for the future because currently only about 47 of every 1000 people in the world get the advantages of internet use. As more people gain access, any environmental consequences will also grow.
The major issue is the energy which these devices consume every day during their use. For example, estimates of energy use in the US in IT equipment vary from 2 to 8% of the total US electricity use.
Similarly, estimates for the energy use of the internet itself, as opposed to the computers connected to it, also vary from 1 to 8% of the total.
Japanese estimates of CO2 emissions due to IT equipment and infrastructure range also from 1 to 8% of the total Japanese CO2 emissions.
Of particular concern are estimates by the US Environmental Protection Agency that 9% of the US electricity demand is from ICT products in the standby mode and that 90% of the energy used by equipment is used while in standby mode. European estimates are similar.
The environmental impacts are not limited to energy use
There have been many attempts to analyse the broader impact of ICT equipment in various places around the world. Usually these have been done for specific industries by comparing operations with and without internet services.
For example, bookshop services comparing conventional shops with order-by-internet services reveal that the internet version is up to 43% better with regard to emission of carbon dioxide. This improvement is mainly because the visit to the shop by the customer in a car is avoided, even though the book had to be posted or couriered to the customer.
Further improvements were obtained because unsold books did not need to be delivered to the shop.
For software purchasing, ordering and delivery by the internet produced an 84% improvement because there was no need to put the software on a CD-ROM and post it to the user.
Another example is applying to government agencies for such things as building permits or passports where there was a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 92%. Again this improvement was due to less personal travel to pick up or deliver forms.
Interestingly, a study of alternative network systems found that wireless networks were better than wired networks by a factor of at least two.
From these studies it seems that dematerialisation is a good way to save on environmental costs. This means, for example, avoiding personal transport by using teleconferences or email.
Considerable benefit can also be gained by more efficient transport and other such services by making use of ICT products for good management, or for energy management systems in buildings.
One detailed study of the Japanese economy suggests that by moving to a more IT-based economy, there would be an overall reduction in CO2 emitted of about 3%. Although more electricity would be used to power the IT equipment, there would be improvements in energy efficiency in industry and some structural changes which would more than offset that increase.
David Parsons is a lecturer and associate head of electrical, electronic and computing engineering, Faculty of Engineering & Surveying, University of Southern Queensland.