This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
This is the last installment in our green computing update. Part 1 dealt with data centers, Part 2 was about components, Part 3 covered whole machines, and what happens to machines at the ends of their lives. In Part 4, I examine how the use of computers helps to create a brighter, greener future, from telecommuting and teleconferencing, to e-commerce, paperless offices, and computer-aided design for sustainability.
Introduction: The High-Bandwidth, Low-Carbon Future
The Australian research group Climate Risk has produced Towards a High-Bandwidth, Low-Carbon Future, assessing communication technology's current and potential impacts. It's the most comprehansive study I've seen: CR cites data not just from Australia, but from the UK, US, and other countries. In this series, I've noted how much environmental impact computers have; but as Climate Risk quotes the UK's Forum for the Future, "An increase in transport intensity is ten times more significant for CO2 emissions than all primary broadband impacts." Furthermore, "[T]he estimated abatement opportunity calculated herein is almost 5% (4.9) of Australia’s total national emissions, making the use of telecommunication networks one of the most significant opportunities to reduce the national carbon footprint."
This is a bold statement, but history backs it up. CR notes a remarkable statistic from the dot-boom 1990's in the US:
From 1992 to 1996, US economic growth averaged 3.4% a year while energy use grew by 2.4% a year...[H]owever from 1996 to 2000, Romm reports an apparent anomaly in US energy statistics. The US GDP growth increased to over 4% a year, but during the same period, energy demand only increased by 1.2% a year.
This was the biggest drop in energy intensity since the oil crisis of the 1970's, and we weren't even trying.
It may not sound like much at first, but as we've written before, Rosenfeld's Law (a "Moore's Law for efficiency") shows that if energy use per GDP falls by 2% per year, then 100 years from now, we can have ten billion people on this planet at today's standards of living while using half the energy currently needed to support that standard.
Climate Risk calculated the potential energy savings of various activities that are enabled by computers and the internet:
Technology alone is not enough, of course; CR points out that company and government policies must take advantage of technology to bring on a net emissions decrease. But it is clear that when properly leveraged, computers can be extremely powerful tools for reducing energy-intensity of business and commerce.
Commuting by car is an enormous source of air pollution. A US Environmental Protection Agency report shows that personal vehicles cause 13% of US greenhouse gas emissions.
TIAX has written a wonderful in-depth report on telecommuting for the US Consumer Electronics Association. According to its findings, telecommuting saved between 130 and 190 petajoules of energy in the US in 2006 -- the equivalent of removing about two million cars from the road, or about one million homes from the electrical grid. This was thanks not only to reduced driving, but also because those workers did not need external office space. (Sun Microsystems boasts about how the company saved $63.8 million in real-estate costs alone in 2005 with its "open office" program.) [Full disclosure: Sun has donated time and computer hardware to Worldchanging. -Ed.]
The TIAX study also found that even though telecommuting increases energy use in homes (because now they are also offices), the increase amounted to a tiny fraction of what would have been used in driving to work. Telecommuting is especially beneficial because it reduces driving during rush hour, when idling in traffic causes particularly inefficient fuel use. An additional benefit: Reducing congestion also cuts the need for more government spending on roads.
Current levels of telecommuting are minute compared to what they could be, according to TIAX, and thus the potential fuel and energy savings from increased telecommuting are huge; they could rise to ten times what they are now, equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road.
The growing ease and efficiencies of telecommuting can have a downside: improved communications technology and computerized call routing have famously led to offshoring of tech support and other call center employment to nations where companies can pay workers much less than they need to in the US. But in the past few years businesses have also been "homeshoring" -- routing calls to networks of people working out of their own homes. As CNet wrote in 2004, "companies are turning to homeshoring in response to call center challenges such as the need for superior agent quality, frequent turnover and the seasonal nature of the business."
Teleconferencing was an environmental win even in the days when special systems needed to be set up to have a video chat between different offices. The Climate Risk report gauges benefits only from this sort of true high-definition videoconferencing -- the sort meant to be as good as face-to-face. But the positive impacts of teleconferencing as a whole are far larger, because many meetings do not require that degree of versimilitude; Phone-only conferences are quite effective for teams that already know and trust each other.
Videoconferencing will begin to produce more energy savings and emissions cuts as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and easier to use, trends that are well underway. For instance, anyone with a recent model Apple laptop or iMac desktop computer has high-quality videoconferencing software and hardware already built into his or her computer.
According to the TIAX study, the environmental benefits and costs of e-commerce vs. driving to brick-and-mortar stores are complicated to assess. On the one hand, e-commerce saves a shopper from driving, thus reducing automobile-generated air pollution. But e-commerce often causes products to be shipped by air, which is vastly more damaging to the atmosphere than shipping by ground or boat. Depending on how much air travel was involved in the shipping, energy use for e-commerce varied from a 29% reduction from going to the store, to a 15% increase. (So when you're buying online, have items shipped by ground.)
Further, even though e-commerce has more efficient centralized distribution, it also uses more packaging.
So, which is better? In the end, wrote TIAX, "it depends." For some shoppers, especially those in sparsely populated areas necessitating long-distance drives, e-commerce can be a real improvement. However, it's also beneficial when retail stores have "significant floor space dedicated to the storage and display of the products," and when shipping does not require much additional packaging.
The one instance in which e-commerce unequivocally wins is when goods are dematerialized -- for instance, buying music over iTunes, streaming movies online rather than renting from a physical store, or downloading documents rather than having them printed and mailed. TIAX calculates that if just half of US video rentals switched to some sort of "video on demand," it would save 1.3 million tons of CO2 per year.
The Paperless Office
Everyone knows the paperless office is a cruelly ironic myth. Desktop computers radically increased the amount of paper used per year for many years, because it was suddenly so much easier and cheaper for individuals to print things than it ever had been before. (Science News writes that computers are responsible for 115 billion sheets of paper being printed annually.)
But everyone is also wrong, at least in the long run. Digital text is slowly starting to win the battle for eyeballs, for two reasons: email and the internet are nearly ubiquitous, allowing faster, easier sending of digital documents; and, fast search tools are ubiquitous, allowing people to find data in their digital documents more easily than in printed documents, and allowing people to find digital documents online faster than they can find paper documents in their own filing cabinets.
A University of California-Berkeley study, How Much Information 2003, pointed out that in the US, "[T]he single largest component of print media flow is office documents." The study claimed that paper use peaked in 1999, then fell 8% between 1999 and 2001. Crooked Timber cites data from Global Insight that also shows a 1999 peak, but states that paper use has declined an average of only 0.9% annually through 2005 -- after growing by 5.7% from 1985 to 1999.
(Digital filing systems also create more complex and aguably effective information structures: they can have many more nested layers of hierarchy, and multiple copies of files (as well as aliases), which allow for more rigorous organization than practicable for paper filing.)
What might be interesting to assess would be the overall rates of paper usage since 1999, across the board and perhaps internationally, and how environmental impacts have changed as a result. The Berkeley study notes, for instance, that "nations with higher access to the Internet have seen stagnations in newspaper circulation in the 5-year period between 1997 and 2001, while nations like India and China with rapidly expanding economies and consumer bases have seen fairly significant increases in newspaper circulation."
The American Consumer Institute has found that,
Using the historical decline from 1999 to 2006 for daily and Sunday readership, newspaper print has declined by 1.7 million tons. This decline translates into 21 million trees that were saved each year, sparing 5.8 million cubic yards of landfill, producing 2.7 million tons of oxygen and filtering out 628,000 tons of pollutants... Since the paper industry uses the most energy, outside of the petroleum and chemical industries, the reduction has spared 2.5 million tons of solid wastes, saved 67 million BTUs of energy and 24.6 million gallons of polluted water.
Twenty years from now printed office documents will have finally withered on the vine; paper will ultimately be killed by larger screens and better interfaces.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his review of the book The Myth of the Paperless Office, summarizes that book's point about paper's ongoing survival: sheets of paper on a physical desk have better affordances for collaboration, organization, and multitasking. But computer monitors get bigger every year--it's just a matter of time before your "desktop" is the size of a real desk, big enough to have several full-size documents strewn around for simultaneous editing.
A New York Times article on life hackers described the amazing productivity gains produced by larger computer desktops: "In two decades of research, Czerwinski had never seen a single tweak to a computer system so significantly improve a user's productivity." And interfaces will eventually become as intuitive as handling sheets of paper; the iPhone's multi-touch interface is a baby step in that direction, and Jeff Hahn's 2006 TED talk on multi-touch interfaces shows what we can look forward to. In fact, such interfaces will be more useful than paper on a physical desk, just like digital search is so much faster than looking for something in a filing cabinet.
Many people say they need to read things on paper to really understand them; but I say, quit whining and join the 21st century. Now that crisp high-resolution LCD displays are commonplace, there is no real readability gap (except in bright sunlight). In my opinion, this is simply a cultural / psychological issue of what one is used to.
All that said, paper is thus far unsurpassed for scrawling notes, drawing pictures, and such, either on blank sheets or as notations on a printed text or image. Aside from a few tablet computers with specialized applications, this usability is totally lacking in the computer world. It will need to become easy to use, affordable and ubiquitous in order for paper to obsolesce.
Better Production Through Information
Perhaps the biggest impact of computers is their ability to help designers and manufacturers make things better. Already, many generations of products are prototyped virtually rather than physically using CAD, saving materials, energy, and waste in the development process. This may not have a hugely significant impact by itself, since a few dozen prototypes pale in comparison to a million units shipped, but the increased speed of the development process helps companies do more iterations and work out more bugs before going into production, resulting in leaner designs.
With traditional "heat, beat and treat" modes of production, it is cheaper and easier to overbuild, to overengineer: steel is cheap, plastic is cheap, etc., so if you're worried about a component failing you just make it bigger. You can reduce material use by carefully calculating the stresses, fatigue, and other factors, but that takes time and requires special analytical tools like finite element analysis. And, the expense of the analysis has generally been greater than the money saved by reducing material use. But with computing power getting cheaper all the time, and analytical tools getting cheaper and easier to use (now even built into CAD programs as plug-ins), this balance is slowly shifting.
The impact of modeling is most visible in the building industry, where building simulation tools have allowed architects and engineers to drastically improve energy efficiency of lighting and HVAC systems, as well as using finite element analysis to design their structures more efficiently.
Computers have also enabled better material choices by allowing researchers to build chemical databases that would be untenably cumbersome on paper. As CIO.com reported:
Herman Miller uses IT to help inform designers about the chemistry and the sustainable properties of hundreds of materials. A materials database, created using Microsoft Access, captures information on potential manufacturing materials and communicates it to the design team. "The IT function and IT support is vital to that process," says Mike McCluskey, project manager for Product Development IT.
Finally, computers have enabled the practice of life cycle analysis (LCA), which allows designers to examine the impacts of their material use, energy use, transportation, and product end-of-life. LCA models the entire life of a product, from cradle to grave (or, hopefully, to the next cradle) to let designers make intelligent decisions and tradeoffs that optimize their environmental impacts. It can be done on paper, but the huge amounts of data required make it realistically untenable without computers.
Conclusion: Green Computing Is Not An Oxymoron
In the end, computers and the internet are not eco-neutral. Some of their impacts are negative, such as energy-intensive server farms, mining and processing of rare minerals for components, and mountains of e-waste exposing recyclers to carcinogens and leaching heavy metals into ground water.
But much of their impact is positive: enabling us to leave our cars at home, streamlining power demand, faciliating renewable energy supply through smart grids, dematerializing commerce, providing tools for eco-design, and improving the energy-intensity of national economies.
The impact of the tools themselves needs to be lightened. But the impact of the tools on the world is already enormously positive, and will only get better.
Image: Prototype bistable display, from HP Labs Bristol
Green Computing Update, Part 4: Computers As Green Tools is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
It is time for commuters to make a paradigm shift in order to save on gas and carbon emissions. The technology exists for most office workers to work remotely, which saves gas and carbon emissions.
There is no reason that most office workers need to drive across town each day through heavy traffic. Remote Office Centers make it possible for people to work remotely from an office located near where they live so they can skip long and wasteful daily commutes.
If more people worked from remote offices, then there would be less cars on the road and less carbon emissions.
Remote Office Centers are fairly new, but can be found in most cities by searching the internet for "Remote Office Centers" in quotes.