Blogs & Comment

The unintended environmental impact of new technology

New tech is often more environmentally efficient, but it can also increase use.

(Photo: NASA Goddard Photo and Video/Flickr)

A few months ago, I interviewed Mike Berners-Lee for a story in Corporate Knights, a magazine devoted to environmental issues. Berners-Lee is an environmental consultant with a special penchant for calculating the impact of everyday activities. It’s a hobby he turned into a 2011 book, How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.

He’s now working on another book that takes a look at something called the “rebound effect,” or the unintended environmental consequences of new technologies that are supposed to make things better. While new advances tend to be more environmentally efficient, they also encourage people to do more of a certain thing, which might be worse in the long run, Berners-Lee says.

As he explains in the story, email is a good example. While a single email produces far fewer carbon emissions than an actual mailed letter, people are now sending zillions of emails. The power needed to run the data centres that process all of those messages—never mind the never-ending tidal wave of spam—does offset somewhat the carbon savings achieved in the first place.

In the case of email, Berners-Lee has an interesting if not wacky proposition: charge people a penny for every email they send. Not only would it dramatically cut down on how much email—and spam—is sent, the money raised could be used for great things. And after all, “If a communication from you to another person is not worth a penny, it’s not really worth making, is it?” he says.

The rebound effect is an intriguing theory, but not everyone buys into it. I also spoke with Jonathan Koomey, an expert on the environmental effects of information technology and a consulting professor at Stanford University, who favours the Kaya identity, a theory developed in the 1990s by Japanese energy economist Yoichi Kaya. Kaya believed that peoples’ effect on the environment is calculated through four factors: population growth, gross domestic product per person, energy use per unit of GDP and carbon emissions per energy unit.

Under this thinking, the rebound effect is only one part of the equation. In other words, while making an action such as sending messages more efficient means we’ll probably do more of it, there are natural limits. “If you reduce the operating cost of your car to zero, does that mean you’re going to spend the whole year in your car and live out of it? Of course not,” Koomey says.

Both theories have points to make, but Kaya seems more sound because his theory isn’t as linear in its logic. The rebound effect sounds similar to the Malthusian catastrophe, or Thomas Malthus’ 18th century prediction that the world would run out of food once population growth had outstripped production capabilities. Of course, that didn’t happen, mainly because Malthus failed to take into account the fact that population wasn’t the only thing that was accelerating quickly; so too was technological capability.

The rebound theory is based on the evidence of steadily increasing carbon emissions over the past century and a half, but technological progress isn’t the only thing that has caused them to rise. Ironically, an increasing population would seem to be the biggest factor. In other words, it’s not necessarily that we’re sending so many emails, it’s that there are so many more people sending them.

Either way, the world is more likely to run out of food before people accept paying a penny for every email sent.