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Sustainable Production

The dawning digital age spawned auspicious terms such as “the paperless office” and “telecommuting,” and rapidly evolving applications that were scarcely imagined at the time, such as Skype and cloud computing, have delivered on these visions in compelling ways. Yet experience to date—for example, with dematerialized production systems that lighten environmental burdens by reducing daily commutes or cross-country flights for work, or that transmit enormous volumes of documents without using paper—has yielded limited results.

Close attention to the things measured and inferences made are critical in sifting through the studies and data on this topic. Since 1950, for example, the amount of energy required to produce a dollar of output in the United States has declined steadily. (See Table 5–1.) On a per capita basis, energy consumption grew 51 percent between 1950 and 1980—an average annual increase of 1.4 percent—and then declined for a sustained period during the 1980s. Although subsequent decades have seen both increases and declines in per capita energy usage, the decline between 2000 and 2010 is the largest since 1950, suggesting that ICT, which was being applied more aggressively to energy efficiency during this period, played a role in the shift.

Table 5–1. Growth in U.S. Energy Usage, 1950–2010

A definitive conclusion is not possible, however, because ICT is only one of many contributors to energy conservation. Two of the main sources of efficiency gains during 2000–10—the insulation of buildings and moreefficient appliances—have little to do with ICT. More significantly, the contrast between the modest efficiency gains in energy use per person and the steep declines in energy use per dollar of output reflect in part a “rebound

Energy-consuming data center in Southfield, Michigan.

effect,” in which the efficiency gains of, say, telecommuting are offset by increased consumption afforded by the savings, such as taking an overseas vacation.

The bottom line is that U.S. reductions in per capita energy use since 1980 have been modest, and total energy consumption in the United States has increased due to population growth. Meanwhile, for the entire world, both per capita and total energy consumption have continued to increase in recent decades. Digital technologies may have made these increases less than would otherwise have been the case, but there is no conclusive evidence for that claim. Regardless of ICT's role, society today remains on the same consumptive path that has created the ecological crisis.

The distinctive role of political events in energy usage is especially clear when viewed at a global level. According to the World Bank, 43 countries underwent a decrease in energy use per capita between 1991 and 2010; however, 25 of them were either former Soviet republics or countries like Poland and Cuba that were in the Soviet sphere of influence. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which ended Soviet sponsorship of satellites via the provision of petroleum products at concessional prices, was a geopolitical event that accounts for most of the countries in which per capita energy usage declined. Although some countries, such as Cuba, responded to this shock in inventive ways that minimized the negative impacts of reduced energy consumption and helped transition to a more sustainable system, most simply curtailed energy use rather than using energy more efficiently, with the negative impacts on quality of life that accompany such unplanned and abrupt changes.

Studies that directly address the actual contributions of ICT to environmental benefits have yielded ambiguous results, in part because of uncertain data, but also because capturing this connection poses considerable challenges. Numerous inquiries offer projections of future savings to be had through the application of digital technologies, although many of these studies are sponsored by global corporations in the ICT industry. In a recent analysis of the 11 most prominent studies projecting future ICT contributions to greenhouse gas reductions, 10 were sponsored by the ICT industry. The four studies published between 1999 and 2004 project significant savings but also describe how minimal or negative impacts might occur. The six studies published between 2005 and 2008, on the other hand, all project highly positive scenarios of ICT contributions to energy efficiency, thus aligning unambiguously with the sponsors' interests in ICT-driven sustainability strategies.

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