The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impacts of Telecommuting and e-Commerce

telecommute

Energy Impacts of Telecommuting and E-Commerce

For more than a decade, most forms of communication have become increasingly digital. From downloading an e-book to sending an email, this shift has changed the way books and newspapers are consumed; less paper is used and fewer trains, cars, and planes are needed to transport our mail. All in all, it seems as if by shifting to digital media and digital communication, we can help to preserve our natural resources and protect the environment. But is that really true?

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) commissioned researchers at the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems CSE to assess the energy and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of telecommuting and e-commerce. In the newly published study, Fraunhofer CSE‘s researchers took into account the energy and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of all phases of a given product or process, including the energy impact of producing materials as well as distributing the final product.

What do traditional books and newspapers cost the environment?

When Fraunhofer CSE researchers looked into the U.S. sales for e-books in 2013 and all the energy costs associated with downloading and consuming e-books, they found that the net energy used was trivial compared to the energy costs of printing and distributing traditional books. This comparison also took into account the energy consumption associated with the cloud servers that house e-books and other IT network peripherals that are used for distribution. Based on an average book weight of 320 grams, each printed book not produced saves 13 megajoules of embodied energy and 3.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (a metric unit commonly used to account for all gases that generate greenhouse gas emissions). In 2013, the energy impact savings from electronic books amounted to 11-15 petajoules, energy that can power 5 to 7 million refrigerators in residential homes for one year (calculation based on the mean annual energy consumption of 604.4 kWh for one primary refrigerator in a residential home; data according to the 2014 ACEEE study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings)

For newspapers, Fraunhofer CSE researchers estimated that between 2010 and 2013, around 5 to 6 million U.S. daily print newspapers were displaced by paid digital subscriptions. At 301 grams (the average weight of one issue of the Wall Street Journal or Boston Globe), every newspaper not printed saves about 12.8 megajoules of embodied energy and 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent. Assuming that each e-newspaper subscription is only downloaded by one person a day, the net energy impact of paid digital newspaper subscriptions across all evaluated cases was between 0.5 to 1.6 petajoules in 2013. Relative to print, e-newspapers reduced U.S. annual energy consumption in all cases evaluated for the year 2013 with a net energy savings of 22 to 28 petajoules. On a national level, the researchers estimated that e-newspapers displaced a total of 550 to 620 million kilograms of print newspapers in 2013. Likewise, as a result of the rise of e-newspapers, greenhouse gas emissions decreased by an estimated 2.7 to 3.5 teragrams (1 teragram is equal to 1 million metric ton) of carbon dioxide equivalent, which is around 0.04 to 0.05 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012.

What are the energy savings of telecommuting?

According to the 2009 National Highway Transportation Survey (NHTS), over ten million people in the U.S. telecommuted at least once per month in 2009. With this in mind, Fraunhofer CSE researchers assessed the possible impact of telecommuting on energy consumption per person, taking into account changes in vehicle miles traveled and the impact of running a home office (i.e., cost of heating, lighting, and the use of electronic devices). Not surprisingly, vehicle miles traveled accounts for the largest part of the savings associated with telecommuting.

Additionally, organizations that embrace telecommuting also have the potential to reduce office space, which consequently reduces energy consumption. One square foot of office space accounts for building embodied energy of 23 megajoules and direct building energy consumption of 10.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. Only one person telecommuting on a regular basis (4 days a week) reduces the required floor space by 80 square feet.

In total, the study estimates that telecommuting reduces energy consumption by 0.08 to 0.12 exajoule (EJ) and greenhouse gas emissions by 5.9 to 8.0 million metric tons carbon dioxide per year, depending on whether telecommuting is or isn’t an integral part of the organizational culture. The energy consumption savings equal 0.07 to 0.12 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption in 2013. The greenhouse gas emissions savings equal 0.09 and 0.12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2012.

Conclusions

Fraunhofer CSE researchers concluded that telecommuting and the two e-commerce approaches they evaluated all reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption.

Of the three areas studied (i.e., telecommuting, e-newspapers, and e-books), telecommuting currently achieves the largest energy savings. Telecommuting would also realize the greatest savings if adopted at its full potential scale. The energy and greenhouse gas emissions impacts of telecommuting largely depend on the frequency of telecommuting and the extent to which office space is reduced by organizations with telecommuters.

The energy savings and reductions of greenhouse gas emissions of e-newspapers and e-books depend on how many traditional books and newspapers are displaced, as well as the embodied and use-phase energy of the reading devices. In both cases, the energy consumed by IT infrastructure to access digital content is much smaller than the device embodied and use-phase energy.

The entire study, The Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impacts of Telecommuting and e-Commerce, can be found here.

About author
Anne Williams is Fraunhofer CSE's Associate Marketing Manager. She works with the Center’s staff to foster CSE’s business relations and make its activities known to the public.
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