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Unpacking the multifaceted climate impact of ICT: Rebound and other effects

How can we efficiently assess the impact – both positive and negative – of digital technologies on the climate? Here, we take a closer look at how to explore and navigate climate opportunities and risks in telecom, how to tackle the ‘rebound effect’ and why it’s important for our industry and society.

Research Lead, Financial system benchmarking @ World Benchmarking Alliance

Unpacking the multifaceted climate impact of ICT: Rebound and other effects

Research Lead, Financial system benchmarking @ World Benchmarking Alliance

Research Lead, Financial system benchmarking @ World Benchmarking Alliance

In December 2021, the International Telecommunication Union´s (ITU) study group for standardization related to Environment, Climate Change and Circular Economy held its Autumn meeting online. ITU is the UN body for information and telecommunication technologies and a study group meeting is a complex event that gathers companies and authorities from across the world for almost two full weeks of discussions about a wide range of associated standardization work items – all discussions formally documented according to well defined procedures to ensure transparency. Once a work item is finalized, a stepwise consent and approval process follows before publication of the standards named Recommendations.

Since a few years back, I have had the honor to be a co-chair (or a co-rapporteur in ITU language) of the sub-group (named Question) which deals with standards for lifecycle and climate assessments, together with my colleague from the French service provider Orange, Jean-Manuel Canet. This time, our group had the pleasure of working with two invited researchers who participated in our meeting to share their research insights.

In particular, we wanted to discuss two of our ongoing work items: the refined standard for the assessment of the induced climate effects associated with the use of digital services, and the related, but more specific topic of how to assess the effect of virtual events. These are areas that we have already thought about for quite some time in the ITU, so we were very happy that we could have the two researchers Dr. Vlad Coroamă and Dr. Jan Bieser in our meeting to broaden our perspective.

Three different orders of effects

The impact of ICT is a multifaceted story with several layers. To structure the discussion a little, impact can be categorized as:

  • First order effects: This is also known as the footprint or the lifecycle impact of the ICT equipment, from mining to disposal.
  • Second order effects: These are the induced effects related to the use of ICT solutions. These effects could be either positive or negative depending on the solution. Potential positive second order effects are commonly known as enabling effects.
  • Other effects: These are higher order effects that have to do with structural and behavioral effects associated with the technology.

This categorization is a foundation for the first ITU standard in this area (ITU-T L.1410). The standard, which has been around for almost a decade, gives guidance on first and second order effects. Other effects are more complicated to address, and standards are still lacking as the area needs further research and exploration. The most well-known effect belonging to this category is the rebound effect. Rebound means to bounce back. This concept is associated with the observation that efficiency gains tend to be counteracted by increased consumption. The effect could either be direct (the consumption of the ICT solution itself increases due to its accessibility), or indirect (the efficiency gains in terms of money or time are spent on other activities whose impacts partly or fully offset the efficiency gain). To make things even more complex, there is also negative rebound (which is in fact a positive effect): if the solution is efficient and expensive it may lead to less consumption of more resource intensive goods or services. 

While indirect rebound is hard to model and often require analysis at a macro-level, direct rebound needs consideration in studies of the second order effect as we have identified in recent research which was developed in close collaboration with Dr. Coroamă. Take for instance an assessment of virtual meetings. It might be tempting to assume that each virtual participant would still have attended the meeting if it was a physical one, thereby assuming emissions associated with travelling to the physical meeting to have been avoided for each participant. In reality, this is seldom the case. When we get access to tools that are more accessible and convenient, we typically start to use them more than the original solution. This phenomenon holds true also for virtual meetings which has become very clear during the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, events typically attracted tens or hundreds of people who would fit into the event room, and who could afford the time and money needed for travel. During the pandemic as events went virtual, they suddenly became accessible to a broad audience without the restriction of facility size and at a much lower investment in time and money. This broader participation doesn´t represent any saved journeys, but is associated with additional, rebound participation. Ignoring this effect would lead to flaws in the assessment of virtual meetings. This illustrates the direct rebound that we need to consider in our assessments of the second order effect of ICT to avoid overstating effects. Quantifying this effect is usually challenging, still it cannot be neglected.

Indirect rebound effects are even harder to assess, and they are also to a much lesser extent associated with the solutions as such. A typical example would be if the money saved due to reduced driving associated with remote work was invested in an overseas holiday flight. Such effects are primarily depending on norms, policies and financial frameworks rather than on the technology itself. For this reason, the ITU standard L.1410 keeps rebound effects as a separate category, different from second order effects, but encourage further research in the area:

“Other effects await further exploration due to the many uncertainties involved. While these other effects may be critical in constructing a more sustainable society, much more research on this remains to be done. Thus, this Recommendation focuses on the first and second order effects. Further research in the area of other effects is encouraged.”

Still, even though quantifications of indirect rebound effects are challenging and uncertain, it is important to realize that they exist, and to find ways to address them, especially at a societal level as they often remain outside the control of the industry. For this reason, ITU has put forward a systematic approach to identify and counteract rebound in the ITU standard for city-level assessments of ICT (ITU-T L.1440).

With these complexities in mind, back to the ITU meeting – what came out of the discussion with the researchers?

We agreed on the need for neutral language so that we develop methodologies that can address use cases with negative as well as positive effects. We also agreed on the importance of establishing comprehensive criteria when we review today´s methodologies and how they could be enhanced. One important aspect to consider in assessments is the time perspective – whether a study is done ex ante, midway or ex post impacts both the assessment and the interpretation of results. This is in line with our methodology research. The potential of using scenarios to deal with uncertainties was also considered of interest.

Much of our discussion centered around rebound. Some interesting observations were made as we discussed – that rebound may be both good and bad from a climate perspective, that the impact of rebound may differ between a short and longer time perspective, that different services are more or less prone to rebound, and that ex ante and ex post assessments provide different opportunities to estimate direct rebound. It was generally agreed that the increased awareness of rebound in society is good – but there is also a risk that too much focus on rebound could reduce the interest of companies and policy makers to increase efficiency of activities and technologies. Hence, we agreed that increased efficiency is important despite any rebound that may occur. The key is to counteract rebound so that efficiency measures are not wasted.

Overall, the discussions and the collective process to better frame this complex topic was fruitful and will help us, and we really appreciated that the researchers took the time to join our meeting and helped the methodology development move forward. Personally, I hope that we could have researchers participating actively in our standardization processes more often, and there are already many universities which are ITU members so there should be some great opportunities.  

Why does it matter how we assess the impacts of digital technologies?

Perhaps all this seems complicated, and why should anyone care about these different orders of impact and the complexities of rebound?

The simple answer is that we need to understand them and how they interact to identify both opportunities and risks related to the climate to be able to take action and help mitigate ongoing global warming.

At Ericsson, as in many other companies and organizations and within the ITU standardization, we spend much time and effort on understanding and reporting our own carbon footprint and analyzing the impact of products to identify their carbon emissions and associated emission hotspots. We are also setting targets in line with established frameworks such as the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) and have worked hard in a cross-sector initiative driven by ITU to establish science based decarbonization trajectories. Within the frame of ITU we have also published a standard on a solid Net Zero approach. All this is important and we aim to address the first order impacts which is the starting point and a hygiene factor to address for any company.

However, in line with the 1.5C Business Playbook and initiatives such as the Mission Innovation, only working on reducing impacts is not sufficient. We also need to understand how we can use our portfolios to contribute to the climate transformation. From this perspective it’s also important to identify opportunities.

As we have stated in our recent methodology research, early attempts in that direction have often been too simplistic and better methodologies are needed. This is why we’re now working in the frame of ITU to develop an enhanced standard (Recommendation in ITU language) in this area. Meanwhile, despite the need for more accurate methodologies, we should not make perfect an enemy of good but learn from existing studies if they are transparent with reasonable assumptions, while making sure that we interpret results based on their context.

Ericsson research and activities

Ericsson has many stakeholders interested in its climate impacts – and it’s always a balance between simplicity and exactness when communicating about these things. When it comes to our carbon footprint as a company, we make a detailed annual data inventory across our 180+ countries to derive our direct and indirect impacts (aka scope 1,2 and 3). Before being published as part of our annual report, the calculations are reviewed by external accountants. When it comes to the footprint at a sector or subsector level, we do extensive data collections and publish our findings in peer reviewed research papers. The research approach applies also to the second order effects, but as this is a less developed research field, data sets are scarcer, and methodologies are developing over time (for example, in the ongoing ITU work) which means that companies and researchers alike learn and refine assessment methods along the way.

Our own research has lately been more focused on the footprint and methodology development for second order effects, but we have also published quantitative research regarding the enabling effects of digital technologies and hope to get the opportunity to return to this topic in the future.

Our most detailed study in this area goes back a few years and came about as a reaction to reports which we thought lacked in transparency and a solid basis for assumptions. For this reason, we did a wide desktop research to identify solutions and actual usages where the technology had led to a documented second order effect. Based on those, we derived potential emission reduction estimates per usage of these solutions, and then scaled those based on two, relatively simple but transparent, usage scenarios representing a higher and a more moderate adoption of the solutions.

The intention of the research was to explore solutions and the potential of the technology – a potential that could be realized if the solutions were used according to the suggested scenarios which we tried to make reasonable and not overly optimistic. An update of this study should consider the continued methodology development since – but it should also consider the additional opportunities associated with solutions and technologies such as 5G, IoT and AI, which have emerged since the study was published. In this research, a key ambition was (as for all research publications) to make data and assumptions well-founded, transparent and possible to discuss. A limitation of applying a methodology that is based on the actual use of technology and measured effects is that it cannot capture opportunities related to new or future use cases or transformative changes. Still, our study concluded that there is an opportunity for efficiency measures across several sectors that digital solutions may help to address.

Based on the solutions assessed in our study and the assumptions made we identified a potential of 15 percent emission reduction for 2030 for the high adoption scenario, and 7 percent in the moderate adoption scenario – whether such potentials would, in the end, result in societal emission reductions at the same level would depend on how societal frameworks would manage to leverage such potentials, for example, by mastering rebound effects. 

Overall a technology potential is about opportunities – whether it leads to an overall emission reduction or not depends on the society the technology is used in and how it incentivizes emission reductions and prioritize resource efficiency. At this point, we need more research and methodology development, both to understand the technology potential and to investigate which societal frameworks we need to deal with rebound and other effects that could counteract any efficiency gain.

Is there any relevance of this topic outside the industry?

The opportunities of digitalization have been identified for many years by the industry and others – in fact, the WWF was among the first to identify this perspective. The discussion around this potential has become more nuanced over the years as the complexities of transforming societies have become more apparent and we should realize that we are still on a learning journey when it comes to how to assess it. Still, the opportunity of digital technologies to help increase the efficiency of societal systems remains important as long as we find strategies to magnify those use cases and counteract any delimiting or adverse effects.

On the industry side, we see new reports emerging like The Enablement Effect report by GSMA and CarbonTrust, where assumption and data are described in a way that makes it possible to discuss the results, which is in contrast to several other reports that just present numbers without providing the method, data and assumptions behind them. On the academic side, the exploration of the effects of 5G by a team of researchers from University of Switzerland and EMPA with Dr. Bieser as the first author, is probably the most prominent example. Though different in scope compared to our 2015 study, the approach is similar to ours as they study the effect of selected services, use different scenarios and identify the importance of counteracting rebound.

At this point, the awareness of the technology potential reaches far beyond the industry and at a European level, the twin transition of climate and digital is an integrated part of the overall green deal strategy, with initiatives such as the European Green Digital Coalition set up to leverage this potential. We also see national authorities like the French ADEME putting forward methodologies to derive the opportunities associated with climate action. Thus, our work in the ITU and our ambition to develop transparent and rigorous methodologies to enhance assessments of the second order effects of ICT is timely and the collaboration with researchers to keep us at the forefront of methodological insights is important.

The overall impact of digitalization

Finally, what is the overall impact of digitalization? The answer is that no one knows, and to me the question is too broad to be meaningful – it´s like asking about the overall impact of road infrastructure, including the consequences of the journeys using this infrastructure. The more meaningful research questions for me revolve around other, more specific topics: What is the carbon footprint of the sector or of a product? How can we reduce it? What opportunities are provided by the technology? How can we maximize their uptake and impact? Which are the negative use cases and how do we suppress those? What risks are there? How can those be suppressed? These things are complex enough to evaluate.  

IEA´s George Kamiya, a well-known and knowledgeable ICT analyst, has used the term ‘climate agnostic’ when talking about digital technologies. To me that means that these general-purpose technologies are not intrinsically either good or bad for the climate. Instead, they could be used for better or worse, as we describe in the Exponential Roadmap.

However, there are many opportunities for emission reductions. But what we get out of technology in the end depends on how we use it. That’s why we need to continue to learn and discuss how to minimize footprints, suppress any usage with negative effects as well as contra-productive rebound. But also – and just as importantly – how do we identify positive use cases and maximize opportunities? Thus, for the climate transformation, we need to keep at least two thoughts in mind at the same time, and we need to humbly admit that deeper understanding is still developing, so we need to learn as we go.

We should not make indirect rebound an argument against solutions that bring efficiency, but we should make sure that we organize society in a way that benefits from efficiency measures. And we must continue to learn more about technology potentials, how to assess them and how to avoid wasting decarbonization potential. Within this decade we need to halve global carbon emissions, so we have no time to wait.

Further reading:


Want to know more?

Read Pernilla’s previous blog post Women in Tech 2020: The role of climate, gender and ICT.

How can technological innovation mitigate climate change?

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