Our digital society research has found that digital technologies have the potential to enable large energy savings in three ways: first by using digitalisation to optimise energy control, secondly by substituting information for material goods and services, and thirdly by enabling sharing of material goods. However, policy interventions will be needed to steer digitalisation in directions that have this benefit.
The energy impacts of digital technologies vary widely between different applications, contexts and users
The use of digital technologies and services to substitute for material goods and services is now widespread, for example e-healthcare, e-music, e-books, teleworking and video-conferencing. Our research finds that there is no strong evidence that substituting physical goods (such as e-books) with digital services delivers significant energy savings. While energy savings can occur under certain conditions (e.g. if user devices are energy efficient, long-lived and intensively used), these savings are highly sensitive to user behaviour, socio-economic context and other variables.
Digital technologies have the potential to enable large energy savings but policy steering is needed to capture benefits
Digital technologies can enable energy savings in multiple areas. New digital platforms can facilitate the sharing of material goods, for example by car sharing, ride-sharing, bike-sharing, peer-to-peer exchange of goods and food-pairing apps. In many cases, sharing business models are community-based and depend on upon the desire of users to contribute to the development of their local community.
However, there is only limited evidence for the achievement of those savings in the past. Claims that energy savings exceed the direct energy use of ICTs lack a firm empirical foundation, and expectations of future savings may be overoptimistic unless these are encouraged by specific policy interventions.
Digital technologies have have both positive and negative effects
Digital technologies have made a major positive contribution to increasing economic growth and providing benefits to consumers. However, there are also trade-offs to consider, including the negative effects for users (e.g. the security implications of smart devices) and to society (e.g. generation of e-waste), in addition to the additional energy consumption. These trade-offs need to be anticipated and managed going forward.
Digital technologies are associated with large rebound effects
Our research concluded that efficiency improvements can encourage greater consumption of goods and services. Continuing improvements in the energy efficiency of digital technologies, coupled with broader improvements in performance and utility can encourage large direct and indirect rebound effects. Evidence from a number of applications (e.g. teleworking, video streaming) suggest that these effects may lead to a net increase in energy consumption. However, with the right policy and market mechanisms in place, digital solutions can deliver significant energy savings.
- Read our Digital society findings report
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