Why ICTs won't save the planet

Who could forget the heady concept of the paperless office‾

 

The arrival of the desktop PC in the "˜80s sparked the belief that the days of old-fashioned paper-based information were numbered.

 

That prediction has to be placed in the same file as the Y2K bug and the Western Union man who rejected Bell's telephone.

 

As we know, the consumption of paper has in fact soared since the arrival of the PC, not least because digital processing also meant a drastic cut in the cost of printing.  Today's offices drown under a deluge of paper.  Unhappy though that may be for the world's forests, it is economically effective because paper is a highly efficient way of managing and sharing information.

 

The same kind of misplaced optimism about the paperless office is being applied to the role of ICTs and climate change, US economist Andrew Odlyzko notes.

 

Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo, to take a prominent example, is one who has trumpeted the ability of broadband networks to help attack carbon emissions. Sol says telecoms will help cut greenhouse gas emissions with high-def videoconferencing, real-time freight allocation, services that will remotely turn devices off, and improved demand management.

 

But Odlyzko, who has made a specialty of analyzing internet as a network phenomenon, points out: "The tide of increasing communications volumes has been powerful enough to lift most services. The telegraph did not stop the mail growing."

 

Indeed, neither did the phone or fax. According to Odlyzko's figures, spending on postal services in the US as a percentage of GDP, which had fallen in the "˜70s, remained at the same level in the 80s, while the number of mail items sent per capita increased 43%.

 

By 1998, despite the ubiquitous use of the phone and the growing availability of the net, US postal service revenue as a share of GDP in 1900 was 17% higher than in 1900 - that doesn't include private services such as UPS.

 

There are many reasons for the simultaneous growth of apparent substitutes, says Odlyzko, but overwhelmingly history shows that, "as society develops economically, both communication and transportation boom."

 

 

So people aren't going to substitute air travel and vehicle trips with IM and videoconferencing just by their being available. More likely the rising cost of fuel will force people to seek network-based alternatives.

 

And we haven't even addressed the telcos' own soaring demand for power in their networks and data centers.

 

The mere presence of broadband networks and smart devices won't cut greenhouse gas emissions. ICTs will have an impact only as economically attractive alternatives.

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