Dueling theories on tech’s environmental effects

30 Jul

A few months ago, I had the chance to interview Mike Berners-Lee, brother of Web inventor Tim, for a story I was working on for Corporate Knights, a magazine devoted to environmental issues. Mike has made his own name as 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.

Mike Berners-Lee.

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.


Posted by on July 30, 2012 in environment


2 responses to “Dueling theories on tech’s environmental effects

  1. russellmcormond

    July 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    While I agree with Mike Berners-Lee suggestion there is a problem from rebound with email/etc, the “charge everyone a penny” suggestion would itself create far more problems than it could possibly solve — including environmental impacts.

    Who collects this money, how, and for what purpose? And what is the cost (social, economic and environmental) of this collection?

    Essentially this is a version of the net neutrality debate and DRM debates combined, whether he recognizes it or not. An email is just bits on the wire, and without an uber-DRM(1) system which disallowed people from using alternative communications systems to “email” (whatever that means) on their own computers there is no way to differentiate email from any other type of digital communication. What we are talking about is taxing communications systems, but trying to create artificial differentiation between different forms of communication within this system.

    If we were talking about a tax on energy (starting with reducing existing subsidies!), I would be fully in support. But a tax on email creates an infrastructure that would not only increase environmental harm, but would create considerable other harms in the process.

    Please realize I agree with his premise, just strongly disagree with his proposed “solution”.

    I have the same problem with electric cars as he is describing about email. I was previously part of a group called “Auto-Free Ottawa” that was focused on reducing automobile usage. There were many electric car fanatics that I disagreed with. While electric cars reduce tailpipe pollution, they increase environmental harms in other ways. My main critique is that with the reduced “guilt” factor over driving, the increased driving would increase energy usage, road and other infrastructure building, and automobile manufacturing (In many cases more than 50% of overall environmental costs happen before car is driven first time).

    If you are focused on the tailpipe and urban air quality, then electric cars will seem great. If you are focused on overall environmental impact, then electric cars are a very bad idea.

    (1) DRM an environmental disaster far beyond anything he could dream of from email. Any reduction in the legal ability of technology owners to reuse/repurpose existing hardware causes more otherwise useful technology to end up in landfill. The whole point of DRM is to disallow technology owners to make their own software choices (and thus use the technology differently than the manufacturer intended/mandated). We should be legislating that manufacturers make technology more able to be reused/repurposed — Including mandatory public disclosure of hardware/firmware APIs, disallowing exclusive rights on such interfaces, etc. We should be making it clearly illegal to disable repurposing rather than legally protecting these harmful schemes.

  2. Marc Venot

    July 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    It’s a running target since now for example there is twitter to boost the number of messages send and the incentative to share images to the cloud because the marginal cost of those is dwindling.

    The rest is so politically loaded that it’s difficult to talk of it here.

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