Digital innovations can help consumers lower their carbon emissions

Digital innovations offer consumers more control, choice, convenience, flexibility and interconnectedness. They also have potential climate benefits, shows a review led by Charlie Wilson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia.

Over three quarters of carbon emissions result directly or indirectly from how we move around, how we buy and eat food, and how we use energy at home. Mainstream consumer practices are often wasteful, emission intensive, and shaped by our private interests without regard to carbon intensity or sustainability. Carbon-intensive practices include owning and driving single-occupancy vehicles (mobility), provisioning for meat-based diets at large out-of-town retailers (food), and passively using domestic appliances whenever needed (homes, energy).

“There are numerous opportunities for consumers to buy, subscribe, adopt, access, install or otherwise use lower-carbon goods and services as alternatives to mainstream consumption practices,” said Charlie. Examples range from shared ridehailing and smart heating to online farmers’ markets and peer-to-peer electricity trading. The Tyndall Centre research team collected and analysed a wide range of data on 33 digital consumer innovations. They then analysed the data to answer two questions: How does the adoption and use of digital consumer innovations impact carbon emissions? In what ways do low-carbon digital innovations appeal to consumers?

In terms of potential climate benefits, Charlie and his co-authors found studies overwhelmingly reported reductions in activity, energy or emissions as a resulting of adopting and using digital consumer innovations. In a few cases, the strong appeal of digital innovations may lead to an increase in their use with potentially adverse ‘rebound’ effects – for example if autonomous vehicles lead to more people travelling by car rather than public transport. In a few other cases, digital innovations may have perverse substitution effects – for example if e-bikes or bike-sharing displaces walking rather than driving. But in general, these rebound and perverse substitution effects were the exception not the rule.

In terms of market appeal, available evidence showed low-carbon digital innovations in general offer consumers choice, convenience, flexibility, control – commonly associated with accessing services rather than owning goods – as well as relational and social benefits in which consumers felt connected to wider networks.

As well as these general reasons why consumers might be attracted to digital alternatives to mainstream practices, different innovations have their own specific appeal. For example, having access to rather than owning a vehicle incurs lower costs from insurance, maintenance, parking, and taxes. Avoiding travelling by interacting virtually – something we’ve all been doing much more of this year – can improve quality of life by reducing commuting-related stress and time costs. Apps for connecting to local food producers or retailers with surpluses can offer healthier, better quality food while helping to build social connections. And smart technologies in the home can open up opportunities for consumers to generate, store, and trade their own electricity while being rewarded by energy utilities for reducing their demand on supply networks.

“There are large potential benefits for climate change mitigation from changing consumption practices but consumers tend to be framed as part of the problem not part of the solution. In our review, we found digital innovations that appeal to consumers in many different ways can help disrupt carbon-intensive mainstream practices and deliver reductions in carbon emissions,” Wilson concluded.

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