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A study by the University of Zurich and the GDI is the first to systematically examine the effects of digital products and services on climate change – from supply to individual consumption. Recommendations for action are also provided. […]

Photo: PhotoMIX Company/Pixabay

What does the mega-hit “Despacito” have in common with the countries of Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic? With 4.6 billion streams worldwide in less than a year, the song used as much electricity as all five countries combined.

Digital products and services such as streamed music and movies, video conferencing or online ordering consume energy – and they have conquered households in Switzerland, replacing many inefficient goods and services.

But will this substitution lead to an overall reduction in greenhouse gases, or will rebound effects negate progress? When is it worth reading a newspaper on a reader and how climate-friendly is the home office really?

These questions a meta-study by the University of Zurich and the GDI (Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute) on behalf of the industry associations Swico and Swisscleantech after. It analyzes the positive and negative climate effects of eleven selected digital products and services and breaks them down separately.

First, a distinction is made between the greenhouse gas effects that occur in the manufacture or disposal of digital products and services. Second, its use also has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

These application effects cannot be judged positive or negative across the board, but require a differentiated view, according to a statement from Swico.

Beware of the rebound effect

On the one hand, this means that resources can be saved if existing processes become more efficient through digitization or conventional products and services are completely replaced. On the other hand, access to these products and services is so easy and cheap — like streaming — that it increases demand and generally creates more greenhouse gases, it said. The study speaks of a rebound effect here.

In short, the study authors and the two study authors found that digital products and services cause more emissions than they save in society as a whole.

This is mainly due to the rebound effects: compared to their analogue predecessors, digital products are faster, more convenient, more accessible, always available, free or offered at cheap fixed rates, increasing consumption and emissions again.

*Jens Stark is an author at COM!professional.

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