Digital Technology May Be Greener Than Imagined

By now, we’ve established that digital technologies — in their various forms — are capable of delivering cost savings and competitiveness. But there’s also an immense green side to digital that has not been fully calculated. A recent report out of the World Economic Forum suggests digital technology will help cut global emissions by a least 15 percent. How’s that so?  Through the efficiencies gained in a range of industries – through solutions in energy, manufacturing, agriculture and land use, buildings, services, transportation and traffic management.

The online world is greener in many ways.PHOTO: JOE MCKENDRICK

The report’s authors, Börje Ekholm, chief executive officer, Ericsson, and Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, estimate that digital technologies could meet at least one-third of the 50 percent emissions reductions sought by the year 2030.

Digital’s impact on transportation is a prime example, Ekholm and Rockström state. “Transport accounts for 21% of global emissions, with 73% coming from short journeys. Several technologies are now converging that will ensure the transport sector undergoes its most dramatic transformation in a century.” These converging technologies include progress toward electric vehicles, powered by software and increasingly operating autonomously. “Driverless vehicles will accelerate a shift in the traditional business model of vehicle ownership towards mobility and transportation as a service.”

IT managers and companies don’t necessarily put green first on the top of their IT strategy agendas.  Perhaps there’s a broader perspective that needs to be taken as well. As a result of our move to an online economy, it’s possible that we’re saving more resources than we give ourselves credit. As many businesses are now digital, and operate virtually versus physically, there’s a potentially a significant degree of resource consumption that no longer takes place, that hasn’t been tracked. Perhaps, we’ll realize, for every kWh computers and data centers consume, they give back x number of kWhs. There are few studies which look closely at these changes.

Consider e-commerce, something that has been around in force for decades. How many physical retail stores have not been built, and do not operate, due to e-commerce? (For purposes of this argument, I’m using the term “online economy” fairly broadly, to cover all types of computing that invokes services from someone else’ servers, including cloud computing, e-commerce, Internet computing, and social networking.)


Think about how many automobile trips and additional office space is no longer necessary due to telecommuting and remote work. Or, how much travel is no longer necessary because of online college courses. How many trees are no longer cut down because of electronic documents, PDFs, and collaborative solutions? How much drilling and digging is no longer required to find resources, due to better data on seismic formations and simulations? How much travel among insurance claims adjusters has been saved because of mobile and Internet technologies? The list could go on and on.

A separate report from WEF quantifies some of the environmental savings seen through digital technology adoption . “There is the potential to avoid an estimated 26 billion metric tons of net CO2 emissions from just three industries: electricity (15.8 billion metric tons avoided); logistics (9.9 billion) and automotive (540 million), from 2016 to 2025,” the report states. In the electricity sector, if smart asset planning and management, and energy storage integration were universal, we estimate that up to 8.8 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions could be saved by 2025, creating $418 billion of new value for the economy.”

Digital data trails play a role in tracking this progress as well. In their report, Ekholm and Rockström spell out the potential environmental impact of digital supply chain management, which helps assure “transparency across operations, tracking assets and suppliers. By benchmarking potential suppliers, compiling corporate social responsibility scorecards and identifying improvement areas, companies can target the areas that will have the most impact.” Digital platforms will also help reduce waste by enabling collaboration to share excess capacity, they add.

Part of the challenge is the complexity of measuring all this — and accounting for the increased level of transactions and activity that digital technology creates, along with energy consumed. For example, e-commerce has shifted patterns as well – individual deliveries are shipped directly to consumers, requiring courier services, versus bulk deliveries to stores.  As a recent paper by Sunita Tiwari and Pratibha Singhas concludes, “ecommerce is actually a double-edged sword. The positive impacts of ecommerce are that it is energy saving and time saving but these aspects are related to negative impacts also, such as pollution, wastage of material, resources and energy. So it is very difficult to state that the environmental implications are positive or negative and it is not easy to clearly define whether the positive effects have the weigh over the negative ones, or the reverse is true.”

Yes, the environmental impact and energy consumption of our rapidly expanding digital economy needs to be managed. But it would be worth it to see more studies on the hidden green benefits the online economy is delivering.