To what extent can the new world of
work, and new methods of production, help to reduce the pollutant emissions
which contribute to climate change?
is a question tackled in the publication The Knowledge Economy and Climate
Change - A review of new opportunities by Lennart Forseback.
The report outlines the various ways
that information age technologies and processes can deliver the goods (so to
speak) while reducing energy consumption. These are:
replacing physical products with a non-material product or service, e.g. having voicemail
rather than answerphones, music downloads rather than CDs. You can include
miniaturisation in this as the same or more can be done with less material
Substitution - e.g. distance
working, online shopping, videoconferencing, which can all eliminate trips
Improving transport efficiency,
i.e. by various means reducing the number of trips and/or reducing the amount of
energy consumed for the journey purposes
Intelligent transport systems
- i.e. managing road systems and travel information systems using technology
tools which will have the effect of reducing the pollution caused by transport
activities, by encouraging people out of cars or by reducing congestion
Improving the efficiency of
production and planning - to achieve the same quality of production but with
les effect on the environment
Energy saving in buildings -
by using intelligent devices to control environmental systems and reduce consumption
Using geographical information
systems (GIS) - e.g. for environmental monitoring and environmental
management systems, enabling more environment-aware decisions to be taken.
It's happening already
Some of the areas covered may be
unfamiliar to people. To hardened cynics, it may all seem a little
But the fact is that there are many
examples of these practices and their associated beneficial effects already. A
previous work by Forseback, Case Studies of the Information Society and
Sustainable Development (May 2000) includes many practical examples and
illustrates how the environmental costs and effects are measured.
Some developments in
"de-materialisation" have proven to be big news this year. The music
industry is responding to the online threat by moving more extensively online
them selves. EMI has sold off its CD production in anticipation of changes in
the method of music delivery. The likely prospect over the next few years is of
music downloads to special kiosks/terminals in stores. Bandwidth and security
are key issues in this first wave. In due course most analysts expect that
individuals will be able to download regular "de-materialised" CDs
over the Internet - a short step perhaps from music downloads as they are now,
but one which will signify a massive increase of scale of activity.
The point is that progress like this
does have a potentially huge environmental impact, in the reduced production and
distribution of physical goods.
It's as simple as that?
Of course, it's not as simple as
that. In all such issues there are choices to be made. Decisions taken when
using the new technologies can be more or less environmentally sustainable. What
is important is that environmental issues are taken into account at every stage.
And this needs environmentally-aware managers and entrepreneurs.
Also, the development of less polluting
methods of production, organisation and working does not necessarily mean that
polluting practices stop. It may mean, for example with road traffic, that
others take advantage of the roadspace vacated by "knowledge economy"
people and processes.
Many new "dematerialised"
products may come on the market in addition to the (perhaps slower)
continued growth of physical counterparts. The substitution of one product for
another cannot be taken for granted in a market economy.
These are issues where policy makers
need to be active to encourage less polluting activities - perhaps by recharging
the environmental cost of polluting activities in the form of taxation. The
"polluter pays" principle.
There's also the built-in
obsolescence of most IT. Back in the 1940s a family might have expected their
gramophone to last a lifetime. How long does the average CD player, or computer
expect to be around? The true costing of IT may be much higher than many
companies like to think about.
Forseback's booklet recognises that
there may be "rebound" effects. But possible rebound effects isn't a
reason not to use the new technologies to minimise energy consumption and
pollution. What's required is to combat possible rebound effects and to make the
greener products and processes so attractive and competitive that they do
replace the "old economy" alternatives.
We have seen this uncertainty in the
debate around transport substitution. The
point again is for practical action. Individuals and organisations can't control
what the world does - but in their own activities they can work for both business
and environmental benefits. It's up to governments to create the framework where
the cumulative impact of individual actions really makes a difference.
The bigger principles at stake
It is doubtful if the approach
outlined here would gain much approval from the hardcore green activists who
have taken to the streets at various world summits recently. For many, the only
way forward is to cut global consumption altogether.
The approach outlined here is based
on the assumption that the best way forward is to combine continued economic
growth with reduced energy consumption. Up until the 1990s, economic growth had
been inextricably linked to increases in energy consumption. Forseback believes
that the link has now been broken. We can produce the same or higher levels of
economic output with lower consumption of energy.
Whether you're entirely convinced or
not, this book is brimful with challenging ideas, and one to set your
organisation reflecting on how it does what it does.