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Facts & Figures Library - Innovation

Broadband Services: Economic and Environmental Benefits
Published Wednesday, February 20, 2008
by Joseph P. Fuhr Jr. and Stephen B. Pociask

Executive Summary

Click here to download the full study "Broadband Services: Economic and Environmental Benefits."

Published by the American Consumer Institute

People around the world are becoming more and more aware of and concerned about changes in the atmosphere due to extreme weather events, melting glaciers, and changing ecosystems. As the Washington Post noted in a special report about global warming and climate change, “broad scientific evidence suggests that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions have already triggered changes in the Earth’s climate and that more disruptive changes lie ahead.” The story discussed a range of costly and daunting measures to address the problem by reducing emissions. These include changes in waste and forestry management, building construction and transportation.

This study adds to the discussion of how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by documenting the reductions that can be realized by the widespread delivery of broadband services in the U.S. Current carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. hover around 7.9 billion tons and are growing. This study finds that wide adoption and use of broadband applications can achieve a net reduction of 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas over 10 years, which, if converted into energy saved, would constitute 11% of annual U.S. oil imports.

The opportunity for broadband and information technology to reduce or avoid energy use, and thus help the environment, is evident in where we work, how we shop and what we consume. For instance, electronic communications are reducing the demand for first-class letters and newspaper subscriptions, which, in turn, reduces the need for paper, saves trees, conserves energy, pollutes less water and emits less greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As workers telecommute, billions of gallons of gasoline are saved. E-commerce means that less square footage of commercial, retail and wholesale facilities are needed, which saves the energy required to build and operate these facilities. As workers teleconference, business travel is reduced, sparing carbon and other emissions as well. In short, high-speed Internet services and other technologies are affecting how people shop, travel, work and use products, and, as this study shows, the benefits to the environment can be significant.

This study reviews scientific literature, estimates the current emission savings that result from the cumulative “network” effects of wide adoption and use of broadband-based applications and forecasts the additional environmental benefits if trends continue over the next ten years. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, these activities are likely to produce the following cumulative incremental benefits: 

  • Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer e-commerce is predicted to reduce greenhouse gases by 206.3 million (U.S.) tons. 
  • Telecommuting will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 247.7 million tons due to less driving, 28.1 million tons due to reduced office construction, and 312.4 million tons because of energy saved by businesses. 
  • Teleconferencing could reduce greenhouse emissions by 199.8 million tons, if 10% of airline travel could be replaced by teleconferencing over the next 10 years. 
  • Reduction in first-class mail, plastics saved from downloading music/video and office paper from emails and electronic documents could reduce emissions by 67.2 million tons. For example, over the next 10 years, shifting newspaper subscriptions from physical to online media alone will save 57.4 million tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • In summary, a review of existing literature shows that the potential impact of changes stemming from the delivery of broadband is estimated to be an incremental reduction of more than 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years.

It is important to note that the promise of these advancements and their contribution to improving the environment can only be fully realized with the widespread use of broadband services by consumers and businesses. Just as the use of fax machines only shifted from a curiosity to become a standard tool in the conduct of business once every firm had one, so it is with information technology and broadband applications. In fact, it is likely that more widespread use of broadband services will lead to further innovation of services and applications that will produce even greater benefits for the environment, beyond those anticipated in this study. These innovations may include even faster Internet speeds, advances in wireless broadband networks, increased reliability and features that make online activities and transactions safer and more secure. To the extent this is true, this study underestimates the potential for greenhouse gas reductions and other environmental benefits that can result from the transformation of U.S.’s communications infrastructure from narrowband to broadband.

As noted in this study, only one in two of every American household subscribes to broadband Internet services, despite the fact broadband access is available to nearly 95 out of every 100 homes. Broadband subscriptions cannot be mandated in a market economy like the U.S., but the potential environmental benefits documented in this study – most notably the reduction in greenhouse gases – can be fully realized only if broadband investment, delivery and consumption continue to expand at a rapid pace. The American public is actively seeking ways to help be a part of a solution to the environmental threats of climate change. Awareness of these environmental benefits will help people to answer the question“What can I do?” by inspiring the adoption of broadband and creativity in its uses.

In summary, this study shows that reduced energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions associated with information technology and broadband use are significant and deserve to be an important consideration in developing a comprehensive energy policy. Focusing on ways to use these technologies as a tool to change behavior and energy use may achieve even greater savings. More research and ideas are needed to incorporate information technology solutions into the nation’s energy policies. And even on a personal level, as people and businesses consider their own carbon footprints, they should be aware of the solutions that broadband and information technology can bring.

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