Swico analyzes the environmental impact of online services

To what extent do digital services contribute to reducing or increasing the rate of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? A study commissioned by Swico and Swisscleantech attempts to answer this complex question by analyzing the effect of provision (manufacturing, deployment and disposal impact) as well as the impact of its use (application effect). The study takes a differentiated approach, Swiso specifies in its press release, addressing optimization effects (when existing processes become more efficient thanks to digitalization), substitution effects (processes completely replaced by their digital versions) and rebound (for example, increased demand due to access facilitated by an offer in digital format).

Conducted by the University of Zurich and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institut (GDI), this meta-analysis focuses on eleven products or services, including video streaming, music streaming, online media, e-readers, online shopping and delivery services. meals, multimodal mobility platforms, home office and videoconferencing, and even precision agriculture services.

Power-intensive transmission

Regarding streaming (video and audio), the authors of the meta-analysis note that the carbon footprint of these services comes essentially from the provision effect “because the streaming of content requires the processing and transmission of large amounts of data in computer centers and via telecommunications networks, whose operation, in turn, requires large amounts of electrical energy”. In addition to working on the energy efficiency of infrastructure and using renewable energy, measures to reduce CO2 emissions in this area should also focus on the design and functionality of these applications to avoid encouraging the consumption of content (for example, autoplay). The rebound effects of these services are also important, as the virtually unlimited, free or cheap offers, as well as the ease of access lead to an increase in consumption (compared to the old methods of consumption via CD or DVD, for example).

Online reading vs. print

Online media and e-readers have roughly equivalent delivery and application effects, according to the study authors. Which point out that reading online may be associated with more carbon emissions than reading books or printed documents, depending on the useful life of the devices used. “Device vendors must therefore ensure that their manufacture is as GHG efficient as possible and that the devices can be used for as long as possible,” the study says. As well as audio and video entertainment, there are rebound effects, linked to easier access to a more abundant and even more advantageous offer.

Mobility and teleworking service: the effect of the application is greater

The study published by Swico shows that the effect of application is much more significant than that of supply in several areas analyzed. This is the case for mobility services, including navigation and route planning applications, but also teleworking and video conferencing, as well as online shopping and agrotechnology. While this type of service has the potential to help reduce CO2 emissions, rebound effects are observed. The authors mention, for example, the case of mobility platforms that can increase motorized traffic. “Providers must therefore check whether smart services actually lead to a reduction in traffic or a shift towards green mobility. Consumers should use digital products and services in a targeted way to bundle together high-emission processes such as travel or freight transport.

The rebound effects of telecommuting and e-commerce

Regarding videoconferencing, a rebound effect observed by the authors refers to the greater number of people invited to a virtual meeting, compared to the capabilities of a face-to-face meeting. Regarding the rebound effects of e-commerce, the analysis finds a potential increase in consumption, since it is easier and faster to place orders online, for a greater choice of products.

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