The rapid adoption and acceleration of the use of digital technologies is transforming the way we access and process information, impacting the global economy and our social dynamics. These dramatic technological and social changes also have important environmental and energy implications.
In recent decades, the digital economy* has generated tremendous growth in traditional and emerging sectors—Craigslist displaced traditional newspaper classified ads, ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft cut into traditional taxi services, and Amazon overshadowed catalog retailing. These trends are set to continue into the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated digital economy developments in critical sectors, including e-commerce, remote work, and digital media. Given the extent and pace of digitalization, it is not surprising that the estimated energy and environmental (E&E) implications of digital economy developments are significant as well.
A growing body of research seeks to understand and quantify the direct E&E impacts of digitalization, both negative and positive, including the increase or reduction of energy use and emissions arising from the use of devices (and/or their supporting infrastructure) themselves. The environmental effects of human-technology interactions–our digital lives–remain understudied. Research indicates that the direct life-cycle impacts of digital devices are typically 100-1,000 kg CO2e per product life for mobile devices, but we lack adequate estimates for the indirect impacts—that is, the environmental impacts of the activities enabled by these devices such as shopping and transportation.
This initiative seeks to leverage academic research across various disciplines in order to provide guidance on a number of high-priority issue areas at the intersection of energy environment and digital platforms. We have provided seed funding to 10 research teams that will explore ideas from understanding Uber and Lyft driver perceptions around electric vehicle adoption to looking at the environmental impacts resulting from the use of AI in the chemical manufacturing industry.
*We define the digital economy as the parts of the economy that capitalize on the technological change that is transforming markets and consumer patterns and is based significantly if not entirely on digital technologies. It includes a broad range of activities, with the common denominator being reliance upon digital operations, infrastructure, and/or knowledge (adapted from OECD).
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Computation systems with the ability to learn and improve their performance over time are becoming more common. As the scope, complexity, and applications of these self-teaching machine systems expand, they will increasingly influence how we manage energy and the environment.
While the subject of much recent attention, there is little clarity surrounding blockchain’s energy consumption and its potential applications in support of sustainability.
The objects used for daily activities are increasingly interconnected and internet-capable, enabling the objects to share information with each other and with users, from smart home devices that reduce energy and water consumption, to interconnected agricultural devices equipped with soil quality sensors.
Digital sharing platforms such as Lyft, Uber and AirBnB have transformed the economy in numerous ways. Despite their prevalence and scope, we have yet to fully understand how use of these platforms impact a range of important environmental issues.
This project will lay a foundation for more analytically-sound and transparent estimates of blockchain energy use moving forward. For more details and project results, see the full paper and accompanying presentation.
The team also published an article in the September 2021 issue of Energy Policy.
Dr. Eric Masanet, Northwestern University
Dr. Jonathan Koomey, Rocky Mountain Institute
While the changes that would result from implementing blockchain solutions are worth studying, we also need to gain a deeper understanding of how these blockchain solutions are to be operated and by whom. For more details and project results, see the full paper and accompanying presentation.
Dr. Sara Saberi, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Dr. Joseph Sarkis, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Dr. Deepak Rajagopal, University of California, Los Angeles
Dr. Nicole Sintov, Ohio State University
Our project team believes that an evaluation of AC Austin will fill knowledge gaps and provide important and novel insights into the benefits and drawbacks of decentralized cooperative sharing platforms as compared to more prevalent centralized commercial approaches. For more details and project results, see the accompanying presentation.
Sara Stephens, Sustainable Economies Law Center
Adam Stocker, Sustainable Economies Law Center
This project aims to address the data and analysis gaps by developing a metric-based framework to quantify energy and environmental implications of AI applications in the production of some of the most common energy-intensive chemicals. For more details and project results, see the accompanying presentation.
Dr. Yuan Yao, Yale School of the Environment
Ongoing Project. This study is designed to provide consumers with a credible way to connect environmental footprint information on their individual consumption to make better-informed decisions.
Dr. Brandon Kuczenski, UC Santa Barbara
In this research, we aim to reveal insights into the nature and dynamics of the sharing economy through a deep dive into a real-world food sharing network that aims to reduce household food waste. For more details and project results, see the full paper and accompanying presentation.
Dr. Marian Chertow, Yale School of the Environment
Dr. Jonathan Krones, Boston College
Dr. Tamar Makov, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Dr. Alon Shepon, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health
Ongoing Project. This project seeks to address the lack of research on the transportation-related climate impacts of the sharing platform Airbnb. This will be the first study of the changing distribution of Airbnb listings and the associated mobility patterns of Airbnb guests, comparing the ten largest Airbnb urban markets and providing data and recommendations for municipal authorities and ride hailing firms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Juliet Schor, Boston College
Dr. Özlem Ergun, Northeastern University
Dr. Qi Wang, Northeastern University
Dr. Mehmet Cansoy, Fairfield University
Our goal is to provide a path for creating locally specific analysis to inform policy and planning. Specifically, we aim to produce tools for communities to generate initial answers for themselves. For more details and project results, see the full paper.
Joshua Skov, University of Oregon
Aaron Toneys, Good Company
Dr. Anne Brown, University of Oregon
Ongoing Project. This project seeks to quantify the full life cycle of environmental impacts of product returns and reveal how returns might affect the environmental performance of e-commerce more broadly.
Dr. Tamar Makov, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Dr. Vered Blass, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Charles Corbett, UCLA