Exploring the Effects of ICT on Environmental Sustainability: From Life Cycle Assessment to Complex Systems Modeling

University dissertation from Stockholm : KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Abstract: The production and consumption of information and communication technology (ICT) products and services continue to grow worldwide. This trend is accompanied by a corresponding increase in electricity use by ICT, as well as direct environmental impacts of the technology. Yet a more complicated picture of ICT’s effects is emerging. Positive indirect effects on environmental sustainability can be seen in substitution and optimization (enabling effects), and negative indirect effects can be seen in additional demand due to efficiency improvements (rebound effects).A variety of methods can be employed to model and assess these direct and indirect effects of ICT on environmental sustainability. This doctoral thesis explores methods of modeling and assessing environmental effects of ICT, including electronic media. In a series of five studies, three methods were at times applied in case studies and at others analyzed theoretically. These methods include life cycle assessment (LCA) and complex systems modeling approaches, including System Dynamics (SD) and agent-based (AB) modeling.The first two studies employ the LCA approach in a case study of an ICT application, namely, the tablet edition of a Swedish design magazine. The use of tablets has skyrocketed in recent years, and this phenomenon has been little studied to date. Potential environmental impacts of the magazine’s tablet edition were assessed and compared with those of the print edition. The tablet edition’s emerging version (which is marked by a low number of readers and low reading time per copy) resulted in higher potential environmental impacts per reader than did the print edition. However, the mature tablet edition (with a higher number of readers and greater reading time per copy) yielded lower impacts per reader in half the ten impact categories assessed.While previous studies of electronic media have reported that the main life-cycle contributor to environmental impacts is the use phase (which includes operational electricity use as well as the manufacture of the electronic device), the present study did not support those findings in all scenarios studied in this thesis. Rather, this study found that the number of readers played an important role in determining which life-cycle phase had the greatest impacts. For the emerging version, with few readers, content production was the leading driver of environmental impacts. For the mature version, with a higher number of readers, electronic storage and distribution were the major contributors to environmental impacts. Only when there were many readers but low overall use of the tablet device was the use phase the main contributor to environmental impacts of the tablet edition of the magazine.The third study goes beyond direct effects at product- and service-level LCAs, revisiting an SD simulation study originally conducted in 2002 to model indirect environmental effects of ICT in 15 European countries for the period 2000-2020. In the current study, three scenarios of the 2002 study were validated in light of new empirical data from the period 2000–2012. A new scenario was developed to revisit the quantitative and qualitative results of the original study. The results showed, inter alia, that ICT has a stimulating influence on total passenger transport, for it makes it more cost- and time-efficient (rebound effects).The modeling mechanism used to represent this rebound effect is further investigated in the fourth study, which discusses the feedback loops used to model two types of rebound effects in passenger transport (direct economic rebound and time rebound). Finally, the role of systems thinking and modeling in conceptualizing and communicating the dynamics of rebound effects is examined.The aim of the fifth study was to explore the power of systems modeling and simulation to represent nonlinearities of the complex and dynamic systems examined elsewhere in this thesis. That study reviews previous studies that have compared the SD and AB approaches and models, summarizing their purpose, methodology, and results, based on certain criteria for choosing between SD and AB approaches. The transformation procedure used to develop an AB model for purposes of comparison with an SD model is also explored.In conclusion, first-order or direct environmental effects of ICT production, use, and disposal can be assessed employing an LCA method. This method can also be used to assess second-order or enabling effects by comparing ICT applications with conventional alternatives. However, the assessment of enabling effects can benefit from systems modeling methods, which are able to formally describe the drivers of change, as well as the dynamics of complex social, technical, and environmental systems associated with ICT applications. Such systems methods can also be used to model third-order or rebound effects of efficiency improvements by ICT.