|Taking a Byte Out of Carbon - Electronics Innovation for Climate Protection (WRI, 1998, 56 pages)|
Electronics innovation has contributed to reducing the energy intensity of the U.S. economy over the past quarter century. The Information Revolution's explosion in connectivity - growing networks with expanding capacity to send a richer variety of data and images around the world - means that electronics and communications products now have a new potential to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Increases in the processing power of electronic devices and advancing miniaturization of components allow more precise calibration of energy use to demands, eliminating inefficiencies in fuel use with minimal effects on end users. At the same time, chip-smart technologies make appliances, buildings, industrial processes, and vehicles more energy efficient. Electronic communication also offers opportunities to avoid energy-intensive travel. These innovations, which cut heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions by saving energy, put electronic technologies at the forefront in protecting the global climate in ways unforeseen just a few years ago.
From 1973 to 1986, energy consumption remained about constant in the United States while Gross National Product grew by 35 percent. Despite the fact that energy use in the United States has grown since then, the amount of energy used per dollar of economic output has continued to fall, although at a slower rate. Technology, much of it developed by the electronics and communications industries, has been the driver in this efficiency gain and also in the shift of the economy from energy-intensive manufacturing to services. As the United States turns its attention to climate change, the acceleration of technology development and application can also play a significant role in reducing future carbon emissions that contribute to warming the Earth's atmosphere (U.S. Department of Energy, 1997).
Innovations, which cut heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions by
saving energy, put electronic technologies at the forefront in protecting the
Electronics and communications companies are not newcomers to protecting the Earth's atmosphere and environment. In addition to contributing to energy efficiency, they have worked in the past decade to make their products in ways that eliminate the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. More recently, they have taken steps to reduce potent long-lived greenhouse gases called perfluorocarbons, which are used in making semiconductors. Companies are also cutting back on materials and energy use through product design, and they are starting to recycle used products. Some leaders are broadening their attention to understanding how their products offer society solutions to the climate problem and to exploring potential business opportunities in using electronics products to reduce greenhouse gases.
The two statements by business groups appended to this report reflect increasing attention to the connection between climate protection and electronics technology. In a September 1997 statement the International Cooperative for Environmental Leadership (ICEL) recognized the significance of the scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (see Appendix A). Building on their earlier experience in innovating technical solutions to protect the ozone layer, member companies are committed to working with government agencies and other stakeholders to promote the development and use of climate-protective industrial technologies. In March 1998, the Electronic Industries Alliance (EIA), an organization of over 2,000 companies, stated its commitment to contributing to the response to global climate change (see Appendix B). The statement of principles says that electronics products can play a significant role in helping society reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve natural resources while at the same time promoting economic growth and improving living standards.
As the United States and the international community develop climate protection policies, electronics products can make an important contribution in cutting greenhouse gases. The Clinton Administration is committed to reducing greenhouse gases. As a first step toward stabilizing the Earth's climate system, the Kyoto Protocol of the Framework Convention on Climate Change calls for industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels during the 2008 to 2012 period. The reductions in energy intensity needed to achieve these reductions will step up demand for a variety of electronics and communications technologies that enhance energy efficiency. The industries that make these products, and their partners in other sectors, stand to gain as society sends and uses more bits of information and deploys more "intelligent" technologies instead of burning fossil fuels.
The report profiles 14 corporate technology initiatives that have
developed smart products that also benefit the climate.
Taking a Byte Out of Carbon Electronics Innovation for Climate Protection shines a light on the dimensions of electronics and communications technologies that can help meet the climate challenge. By highlighting them, the report hopes to increase awareness of climate-protective technologies and stimulate further innovation. The report profiles 14 corporate technology initiatives that have developed smart products that also benefit the climate. It puts them in the context of three underlying technologies - displays, bandwidth, and sensors - that help people work, live, and produce goods and services in ways that emit fewer greenhouse gases. These enabling technologies are applied in many different ways. This study highlights applications in energy management in buildings, fuel-efficient automobile engines and intelligent transportation systems, telecommuting, improved air traffic navigation and more efficient aircraft, and electric paper. As Motorola researchers note, electronics industry players, such as semiconductor manufacturers, are relatively small contributors to climate change problems, but they can be part of the larger solution (Duffin and Frank, 1997).
The synergy of electronics and communications technologies holds the promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although this report focuses on the solutions that electronic products offer to climate change, two caveats must be noted. First, technology is not immune from the law of unintended consequences. Information and electronics technologies, independent of their efficiency attributes, may fuel productivity gains and economic growth that increase overall energy use in the economy, even as energy intensity declines. Nonetheless, technological change must be part of the solution to die problem of growing greenhouse gas emissions, and technology can serve this end if society chooses to use it in this way. Second, the potential for significant contributions to climate protection is clearly here. However, data documenting the scale of the contribution of newer applications of electronics technologies in reducing greenhouse gases are just beginning to be developed. The uncertainty and complexity of changes - such as shifts in where and how people work and moves toward electronic commerce - make it difficult to define baselines and estimate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. More work on methods to measure reductions is needed. This report takes a first step by describing the contributions that technology can make to protecting the climate. It aims to spur public debate, inform public policy development, and shape business strategy so that conscious efforts are made to realize the full potential of electronics and communications technologies in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.