Digital Society findings report

Our digital society research has found that digital technologies have the potential to enable large energy savings in three ways:

  • Firstly, by substituting information for material goods and services,
  • Secondly by enabling sharing of material goods, and
  • Thirdly by using digitalisation to optimise energy control of buildings, industrial processes, logistics and other systems.

However, the digital economy has a large and rapidly growing energy footprint, and the continuing improvements in the energy efficiency of individual devices have been offset by continuing increases in the number, power, complexity and range of applications of those devices – encouraged in part by the efficiency improvements themselves. Digital technologies influence energy consumption in a variety of ways and their overall impact remains unclear. Hence, policy interventions will be needed to steer digitalisation in directions that have an overall reduction in energy use.

The world is currently facing two socio-technical transitions: shifting to a low-carbon society, and a digital revolution. Despite some claims to the contrary, evidence suggests that spread and adoption of ICT does not automatically lead to reduction in energy demand, if this stimulates new energy-using practices or, wider economic growth. Despite this policy challenge, the two transitions are often considered separately.

Energy impacts vary widely

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, termed e-materialisation, 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 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. Many digital services (e.g. e-books) provide only a partial substitute for their material equivalents and the lower cost and higher utility of other digital services (e.g. video streaming) encourages large rebound effects (Court and Sorrell, 2020) where any savings due to efficiencies are used to increase other services resulting in less energy savings than expected.

The most robust historical evidence for remote working (teleworking) suggests that it delivers only modest energy savings or, contributes to increased energy consumption (Hook et al, 2020). Our analysis of English households between 2005 and 2019 shows that the majority of teleworkers travel farther than non-teleworkers each week owing to greater distances between the home and workplace and additional non-work travel. In addition, total household travel is greater in households with teleworkers. However, teleworking three or more times a week is associated with a small (~7%) reduction in distance travelled. The environmental benefits of teleworking are contingent upon broader progress in sustainable travel and land use planning, e.g. encouraging modal shifts from using a car to active travel, like cycling, and avoiding the spreading out of residential housing ‘tele-sprawl’ (Caldarola and Sorrell, 2022).

Evidence suggests that energy efficiency improvements of 5G mobile networks could enable stable or falling energy consumption in these networks, despite rapid growth in mobile data use. However, most studies focus upon operational energy use and neglect embodied energy (from production) and indirect effects, including network infrastructure and raw material extraction, i.e. the whole-network level. Falling data costs are encouraging more data-intensive services (e.g. unlimited data plans), stimulating the demand for new services (e.g. virtual reality, mobile gaming), and facilitating the integration of 5G with other applications (e.g. Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things), which are offsetting the energy savings from improved efficiency (Williams et al, 2022).

Looking back through history shows that transitions in communication technologies appear to be faster than energy transitions, suggesting there may be a challenge in achieving the twin goals of decarbonisation and digitalisation and highlighting the importance of encouraging interlinkages between information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the energy sector (Fouquet and Hippe, 2019).

Energy consumption is not a priority for users

Energy consumption is not the priority for users and there are trade-offs to negotiate.

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. However, the success of community-based sharing initiatives rests upon the desire of users to contribute to the development of their local community. The potential for sharing to reduce energy use, emissions and waste is a secondary concern that remains largely invisible for most users.

A variety of technologies are coming on-stream and we investigated the possible effects on energy use of these technologies and this revealed that factors other than energy consumption are the priority for users. Both professionals and laypeople recognise the potential for energy and emission savings from automated vehicles (AVs). However, there are likely to be substantial direct rebound effects e.g. more vehicle miles (Hopkins and Schwanen, 2022).

Most users who have smart home technologies (SHTs) such as doorbells, consider convenience, security and time savings to be more important than energy and cost savings, and many SHTs support wasteful and energy-intensive practices (Sovacool et al, 2021).

An analysis of the diffusion of smart meters in four countries suggests that their transformative effects – including their potential for energy savings – are oversold. Smart meters are a complementary rather than a disruptive technology and do not challenge the dominant practices and roles of electricity suppliers, firms, or network operators (Sovacool et al, 2021; Geels et al, 2021). Data from smart heating trials reveals trade-offs between comfort, value and cost; diverging preferences for the level, duration and area of heating; conflicts between different users (e.g. parents versus children, hosts versus guests) and the importance of considerations other than thermal comfort (e.g. social signaling, parental care, preventing damp, caring for pets and plants) (Sovacool et al, 2020; Sovacool et al, 2020b; (Sovacool et al, 2020c.

Technologies have positive and negative effects

Digital technologies can have both positive and negative effects.

Digital technologies have made a major positive contribution to increasing economic growth and providing benefits to consumers. However, it is important to consider the trade-offs between these benefits and the negative effects of additional energy consumption. Digital technologies also have negative effects for users (e.g. the security implications of smart devices) and to society (e.g. generation of e-waste) that must be anticipated and managed going forward. Policymakers are paying increasing attention to the potentially adverse social impacts of digitalisation, such as concerns about data privacy and the lack of accountability of large firms. However, there is insufficient attention to the energy and environmental impacts of digitalisation, and a tendency to accept optimistic appraisals of those impacts that lack supporting evidence and these issues need addressing with improved regulation of firms. A review of low-carbon scenarios found that they highlighted the potential of digitalisation to both increase and reduce energy demand, depending on specific direct energy use effects of ICT; indirect and rebound effects in transport and home energy use; and wider effects via economic growth. This analysis implies that the future pathways adopted for digitalisation will have a significant impact on future energy demand and hence on the feasibility and acceptability of achieving net-zero goals (Bergman and Foxon, 2022) . 

Potential for large energy savings, but also rebound effects

Digital technologies have the potential to enable large energy savings but are associated with large rebound effects hence policy steering is needed to capture the benefits

Digital technologies can enable energy savings in multiple areas.

Emerging business models for energy services (e.g. smart tariffs, electricity storage, peer-to-peer trading) offer potential benefits to electricity consumers (e.g. affordability), electricity systems (e.g. flexibility) and the environment (e.g. decarbonisation). A ‘Ladder of Innovation’ was developed according to environmental, social and economic value at the local level compared to the national level and also integration with the energy system. Our review of UK trials of such business models suggest that they are primarily driven by the needs of the electricity system (e.g. extending aggregation capabilities to facilitate the balancing of local demand with local supply), and deliver only modest benefits to users, whilst often failing to deliver on local environmental and social goals (Hiteva and Foxon, 2021). Policy needs to develop a set of regulatory and market incentives which aim to address these failings.

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 (Court and Sorrell, 2020).

However, for autonomous vehicles (AVs), many of the scenarios project a net reduction in energy demand (Hopkins and Schwanen, 2022). But, these effects are likely to be larger in freight than in passenger transport, and cancelled out at least to some extent by greater vehicle mileage, more car trips at the expense of other modes of transport, and greater distance between home and work. Policy should concentrate on minimising the direct and indirect rebound effects linked to AV adoption and use, particularly in passenger transport.

With the right policy and market mechanisms in place, digital solutions can deliver significant energy savings and social wellbeing and local environmental benefits, not just economic gains. Suggestions for policy interventions include energy efficiency regulations, consumer protection, technical and marketing standards for SHTs and devices, default settings, reuse and repair requirements for direct energy consumption and land use planning to avoid tele-sprawl to encourage indirect energy savings. In particular, policy-makers should ban the practice of planned obsolescence and enshrine a ‘right to repair’ in law in order to prolong the average lifespan and recyclability of SHTs and devices. Policy-makers also need to carefully consider whether stimulating and catering for seemingly ever-growing levels of digital data traffic is a sensible and sustainable long-term strategy, despite the industry’s optimistic assertions that the energy use implications can continue to be managed through further energy efficiency improvements.

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