Earlier this week our favorite green IT research guru Jonathan Koomey delivered a look at the carbon savings of digital music downloads vs the traditional CD distribution process, and a couple days later researchers at the Cleantech Group examined just how many books, and thus carbon emissions, an e-book could displace. Increasingly, researchers have started to take a deeper dive into just how much energy can be saved by replacing physical goods with broadband-enabled products and services.
I think this bunch of research is just the beginning of a wave of studies that will methodically prove that in many cases consuming digital goods via broadband networks is far superior, in terms of carbon footprint and energy consumption, to consuming their physical counterparts. As Bill St. Arnaud put it on his blog recently: “The next killer app for the Internet is dematerialization.” By replacing atoms with digital bits, reducing goods created and cutting carbon emissions, the Internet will be one of the key tools to fighting climate change (something we focused on at our Green:Net ’09 conference). Particularly if there’s increased attention to more energy-efficient broadband infrastructure and a stronger focus on the kinds of broadband services that can cut significant carbon emissions.
That’s why the proliferation of high-speed broadband across the globe is really a cleantech issue. While there are numerous reasons to build out high-speed broadband infrastructure — offering users low cost and easy access to education, communication and business services — one of the most important reasons going forward will be the Internet’s ability to replace physical goods with virtual ones and fight global warming.