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The knowledge economy - combating climate change 

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?

This 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:

  • De-materialisation - 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 idealistic. 

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.

Using new ways of working, and new ways of organising work has considerable potential for reducing the amount of energy we consume and the amount of pollution we produce.

This should be of interest to all organisations, as  bottom line and competitiveness issues are involved, as well as environmental issues.

For organisations such as government agencies, changing the way they work so as to reduce energy consumption  can help to align corporate practice with policy objectives.

The report The Knowledge Economy and Climate Change - A review of new opportunities by Lennart Forseback is available from the European Commission IST Information desk:
Tel: +32 2 296 3460.

And for further information see the author's website at 

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