Green:Net: The Dematerialization Opportunity

Jonathan Koomey of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Stanford is one of the world’s reigning experts on “dematerialization,” which he defines as two things. First, “removing the need to create a physical product.” And second, “the energy savings associated with not having to transport that product.”

The dematerialization opportunities may be immense, but it’s not clear what will have the biggest impact — creating new better products, erasing the need for old ones, or modeling behavior in a new way. So the first challenge is to evaluate what changes and innovations will actually make a difference in energy consumption.

Where are the best places to replace atoms with bits? The panelists agreed that telecommuting can made a real dent in carbon emissions through reduced transportation and condensed office spaces. Saul Griffith of Squid Labs estimated it could make a 5 percent global difference in the way we use energy.

But Griffith was skeptical of efforts to green the information technology industry. Globally, IT (aka ICT, in the European parlance) accounts for 1.5-3 percent of carbon emission, Griffith said. He called it “a very good use of that energy,” especially compared to something like 33 percent of consumption allocated for heating, and another third for transportation.

Griffith, who measures his own energy consumption closely, said he was able to cut out one of the top contributors of their own usage, a New York Times paper subscription, by buying an iPad. But new toys are not a cure-all. “Now I have a 1-year-old; are you going to replace his diapers with an iPad? No.” Griffith said he was looking for big leaps, not the kind of “2x reductions” you might be able to get by making the materials in a plastic bottle thinner to reduce the amount of energy required to make, transport and dispose of it.

The Greenpeace International perspective, as represented by IT analyst Casey Harrell, is a little more stark. “What about not making a car more efficient but erasing the use of a car,” he asked. “The iPad vs. a book? We have library cards.”

Koomey noted that while he has studied the relative impact of digital music vs. physical media, he is still gathering funding to look at print media, hopefully in the next year.

What are some of the opportunities to take advantage of dematerialization? Molly Webb of The Climate Group said cities could be great centers of increased efficiencies in things like transportation, though in her experience smaller towns have better flexibility and fewer regulatory hurdles to actually get these initiatives done. Koomey suggested remote sensing and data analysis. Griffith suggested looking at landfills and using social networks to spread information in real time, use trusted relationships and to monitor users’ self-reported actions. “I look at landfills and I see 400 multibillion-dollar businesses staring at me in the face,” he said.

Koomey cautioned, though, that dematerialization improvements may take a long time to be effective, even if they make sense and can be invented now. He referenced the so-called “Productivity Paradox” of the 80s, when businesses installed PCs and saw little noticeable improvements. The expected productivity improvement only came to fruition after companies redesigned their systems to take advantage of the computers.

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