A multi-impact analysis of changing ICT consumption patterns for Sweden and the EU: Indirect rebound effects and evidence of decoupling

Joyce, P. J., Finnveden, G., Håkansson, C. and Wood, R. (2019). Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 211: 1154–61.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.11.207

Information and communication technology (ICT) has been one of the major areas of growth in consumption over the last two decades.

Falling prices and increasing energy efficiency in ICT may lead to reduced spending on the technologies, and electricity consumption, in the future. However, a reduction in one kind of spending can trigger an increase in another kind, offsetting and even overwhelming the environmental benefits associated with lower consumption of a given product or service. The scale of these “rebound effects” can be difficult to anticipate and to monitor.

This study uses multiregional input-output (MRIO) analysis to investigate trends in the consumption of, and the environmental and social impacts associated with, ICT products in Sweden and the wider European Union.

The authors find that ICT spending is correlated with prosperity, with a clear fall as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, but a recovery since. There is some evidence that the environmental impact associated with ICT has begun to decouple from ICT consumption in Sweden, but this has not happened at the EU level.

The study also finds that environmental rebound effects associated with reduced ICT consumption have been strong – with consumption impacts increasing in most cases far above 100% of the reductions due to changed ICT consumption. This rebound effect – strong enough to be termed a “backfire effect” – is greatest for energy use and total material footprint, where it reaches close to 200% in Sweden.

This implies that increased spending on ICT products and services, while keeping the overall consumption level constant, would reduce environmental impacts.

Compared with ICT spending, environmental rebound effects are much lower for the reduced energy spending – as low as 2% – particularly at the EU level.

The study offers the first analysis of rebound effects in social indicators for ICT products. It finds that value-added in the EU is relatively insensitive to changes in spending patterns related to ICT and energy (rebound effects ∼100%). However, rebound effects are seen in employment, particularly as a result of decreased energy spending. At the EU level, reallocation of spending due to lower energy consumption results in a net increase in employment, while in Sweden the reverse is true.

The study concludes that policies focused on reducing energy spending are likely to have greater overall environmental benefits than measures that result in reduced consumer spending on ICT. However, in light of the conflicting social rebound effects both in Sweden and at EU level, the importance of understanding the broader consequences of policy decisions across a broad range of measures in advance of their implementation is once again highlighted.

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