Journal of Industrial Ecology

Exploring Environmental Applications and Benefits of Information and Communication Technology

Introduction to the Special Issue


Address correspondence to:
Eric Masanet, Ph.D.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
1 Cyclotron Road, Building 90R4000
Berkeley, California, USA 94720

When the first commercialized transistor ushered in the solid-state era nearly 60 years ago, few could have imagined the many ways that information and communication technology (ICT) would permeate and transform our lives in the 21st century. Today, ICT is a critical component of nearly every sector of the global economy, and has led to considerable transformations in the way that humans interact with each other and with the world around them.

“Because of its emphasis on the use of system perspectives, industrial ecology is well suited to analysis of both the benefits and impacts of ICT. … this collection of articles brings these topics into sharper focus, highlights future directions for ICT applications and their potential positive implications, and reinforces the importance of future research work…”

Information and communication technology can be broadly defined as systems whose fundamental functions are anchored in the generation, processing, storage, communication, and/or presentation of digital information. Many ICT systems employ most or all of these elements, and the vast majority of these systems are based entirely on solid-state technologies. Arguably the most prominent example of a transformative ICT system is the Internet, which serves as the global backbone of the information age and whose reach extends into most modern ICT applications in every sector.

Increasingly, ICT systems are being recognized and promoted for their benefits to productivity, cost effectiveness, energy and resource efficiency, and environmental burden reduction in many applications. A few interesting examples of such applications are featured on this issue's cover. A state-of-the-art earth mover may rely on machine sensors, global positioning system (GPS) communications, and sophisticated computer controls to allow an operator to maximize the productivity and fuel efficiency of construction operations in real time. Smart utility meters can record and upload building energy use data in near real-time fashion. These systems markedly improve energy data access – from any networked device – for both utility companies and customers, which can lead to more energy-conscious behaviors. Data centers and the Internet have ushered in exciting new opportunities for replacing physical media with digital services (e.g., e-commerce, digital music, and digital text), which hold great promise for reducing the resource intensity of many forms of consumption. Indeed, even the massive computing power and networking capabilities that are fundamental to ICT are being harnessed to solve increasingly complex environmental modeling problems. Examples include sharing of data and computational tasks in multi-institutional environmental modeling efforts, forecasting various long-term impacts of global climate change, and more accurately predicting pollutant dispersion within different media in the environment. These are but a few examples of modern ICT applications for environmental and economic benefit.

While there are many tangible positive benefits of ICT, such as improved productivity and quality of life, much of the policy debate and research focus since the 1990s has been centered on its negative environmental or energy impacts. As a result, there has been a consistent questioning of the overall net benefits of ICT. In particular, the growing electricity demand from data centers, personal electronics, and computing devices has been the focus of much research work and commentary, given the rapid deployment of such ICT applications as we move toward an increasingly digital world. Many have shown that the energy use of ICT is indeed significant, but that it is also increasingly manageable through smart policies and improved technologies (for example, Brown et al. 2007). However, doubts may still linger due to past dire projections of massively growing ICT energy demand, such as estimates put forth in the late 1990s that suggested that the Internet would eventually account for one-half of total U.S. electricity use (Mills 1999). While such estimates were later debunked (Koomey et al. 2002), the “memory” of the Internet causes such flawed perceptions to persist today – an ironic side effect of the impact of the technologies in question.

Still, the negative impacts of ICT cannot be ignored. The counterintuitive notion of the 1.7 kg microchip (i.e., that 1.7 kg of fossil fuels and chemicals are required to manufacture one 2 g microchip) has underscored the high resource and energy intensities of manufacturing semiconductors, which are an essential building block of all modern ICT systems (Williams et al. 2002). There has also been much work on the environmental impacts of electronic wastes, which are an undesirable and (eventually) unavoidable byproduct of all ICT systems. Such issues are increasingly being addressed by voluntary and regulatory mechanisms such as “green” ICT labels and standards (e.g., EPEAT), energy efficiency standards (e.g., ENERGY STAR), e-waste recycling laws (e.g., the EU's WEEE Directive), and hazardous materials bans (e.g., the EU's RoHS Directive). Such progress is vital and must continue. However, the true net impacts of ICT can only be understood when we consider its negative impacts alongside its many possible benefits.

The focus of this special issue is on the benefits side of the equation. Specifically, this issue explores the state of research and knowledge related to environmental applications of ICT. These can be thought of as any ICT application that results – either intentionally or as an inherent part of the service(s) it provides – in a reduction of environmental impacts borne by human and natural systems. A prior special issue of the Journal of Industrial Ecology looked specifically at the energy and environmental aspects of e-commerce systems.1 The goals of the current special issue are to continue where the past issue left off, and to broaden the discussion to other practical applications of ICT for environmental benefit.

Because of its emphasis on the use of system perspectives, industrial ecology is well suited to analysis of both the benefits and impacts of ICT. As a field that seeks to understand—and pursue—sustainable production and consumption, often by examining materials and energy flows at different scales, industrial ecology has produced significant research on the intersection of ICT and the environment. This special issue presents research that uses and speaks to several aspects of the field— life cycle assessment (LCA), ecodesign, industrial symbiosis, and eco-efficiency.

We were aided in this effort by funding from the Leading Edge Forum of CSC, a well known IT services firm. The Leading Edge Forum (LEF) is a global research and advisory program focusing on the intersection of business, IT, and management. The LEF sought to increase its awareness of insights emerging from academic research on ICT and the environment. As with all such funding, and, as befits a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Leading Edge Forum and the CSC had no editorial role in selection, evaluation or editing of the contributions. All the responsibility lies with the editors and, of course, the authors.

To this end, the call for papers for this special issue was deliberately broad in its scope. It welcomed scholarly contributions that covered any environmental application of ICT and any aspect of its societal benefits. As a result, this issue features a diverse set of commentary and research articles from leading scholars who are investigating the various ways that ICT can enable environmental and economic improvements in a range of sectors. Broadly speaking, this collection explores the special issue topic from three general perspectives: (1) specific examples of ICT applications; (2) investigations into the net societal and economic effects of ICT systems; and (3) assessments of trends and emerging ICT applications.

Specific examples of the benefits of ICT applications can help us quantify the positive aspects of ICT more credibly and explicitly, which can lead to better decision making for ICT deployment policies. Mutchek and Williams (2010) assess ways in which “smart” technology can be deployed in the southwestern United States to reduce the costs, water use, and carbon emissions of irrigation. They show several “win win” design strategies for such systems despite large differences in the cost and use of water in the region. Berges and colleagues (2010) survey the various technologies available today to enable whole-house and appliance-level electricity metering, focusing on technology that non-intrusively identifies electricity use of appliances in order to reduce consumption. Min and colleagues (2010) explore how computer models can organize government data to estimate residential energy use at the zip code level. This could have significant benefits in promoting use of household-level “footprints” as well as in planning strategies to reduce energy use. Masanet (2010) summarizes empirical data on the energy benefits of electronic control systems at small and medium sized manufacturers in the United States. He finds that various technologies would save money and save energy if implemented in this large subset of the industrial base.

Investigations into the net societal and economic benefits of ICT systems represent complex, but crucial work toward evaluating ICT in a more holistic manner. Laitner (2010) summarizes work on how semiconductors have led to large reductions in energy use over time. This work suggests that targeted additional investments could keep 2030 electricity use below 2010 levels. Erdmann and Hilty (2010) reconsider prior modeling efforts to assess net benefits of ICT in Europe for a variety of applications via macroeconomic methods, and find a range of positive and negative impacts. Weber and colleagues (2010) explore how delivering music digitally compares to traditional physical distribution using a life cycle perspective. Digital distribution is found to be 40–80% better than the best case of delivering physical media with respect to energy consumption and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions despite the overhead of network energy use. The results are, however, sensitive to both behavioral assumptions of how customers use digital music as well as several important choices in the logistics chain of retail and e-tail delivery, such as customer transport to the store, CD packaging method, and final delivery to the customer's home for e-tail. Malmodin and colleagues (2010) discuss life-cycle considerations of ICT systems with a focus on the emerging entertainment and media sectors. They find that this sector consumes about 1–2% of global energy use, including consumer use.

Lastly, assessment of trends and emerging ICT applications can shed light on the future of ICT as a means for environmental benefit. Davis and colleagues (2010) discuss “industrial ecology 2.0,” where semantic web technologies are enabling our community to meet the challenges of our field. Grant and colleagues (2010) discuss how ICT systems have improved the study of industrial symbiosis around the world. Zapico and colleagues (2010) discuss the role of environmental and energy metrics in assessing how ICT systems are reducing impacts. Kraines and his colleagues (2010) construct an interlinked series of internet-based models to assess integrated effects of supply-side and demand-side technologies and policies for carbon dioxide mitigation in urban areas. They use the integrated model to evaluate scenarios that included introduction of a solid oxide fuel cell combined with a gas turbine topping cycle (SOFC/GT) as a supply-side technology and reduction of electricity demand by energy conservation and rooftop photovoltaic (PV) cells in residential and commercial buildings as a demand-side measure in Tokyo, Japan.

The articles in this special issue are complemented by reviews of books on ICT and the environment including one on e-waste, a second on building information management (BIM) systems and a third on the role of ICT in pursuing sustainability, broadly considered.

The environmental applications and benefits of ICT are very broad topics, and we can but scratch the surface in a single issue. However, the contents represent a snapshot of the cutting edge in research and thought in these topical areas, and capture the multi-faceted nature of ICT's benefits. We hope that this collection of articles brings these topics into sharper focus, highlights future directions for ICT applications and their potential positive implications, and reinforces the importance of future research work that will allow us to maximize the positive and minimize the negative impacts of ICT moving forward.


About the Authors

Eric Masanet is Acting Deputy Leader of the International Energy Studies Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, USA, Research Engineer in the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Manager of the UC Berkeley Graduate Engineering and Business for Sustainability (EBS) Certificate Program. H. Scott Matthews is Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering/Engineering and Public Policy and Research Director of the Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.