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Summary:

There are a lot of reasons why we should build out high-speed broadband infrastructure, like how it can offer low-cost, easy access to education, communication and business services. But one of the most important reasons going forward will be the Internet’s ability to replace physical goods […]

broadbandrouterThere are a lot of reasons why we should build out high-speed broadband infrastructure, like how it can offer low-cost, easy access to education, communication and business services. But 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. This month, we’ve seen a wave of research that shows how digital goods (like music and books downloads) are superior from an energy and CO2 perspective vs. their physical counterparts.

As Bill St. Arnaud put it on his blog recently: “The next killer app for the Internet is dematerialization.” In other words, the Internet will be one of the key tools to fighting climate change by replacing atoms with digital bits, reducing physical goods created, and cutting carbon emissions. That’s the idea that we examined in-depth at our Green:Net 2009 conference back in March.

Thus, the build-out of high-speed ubiquitous broadband networks becomes a means to fight climate change and an issue at the heart of the cleantech industry. Remember Metcalfe’s law, which says that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of network users? Well, consider that through a green lens: The dematerialization potential of the Internet grows alongside the amount of connections.

The network speed itself is also important. Slow connections, which take ages to download digital media, won’t enable users to weave broadband into their daily lives, and won’t deliver the same kind of dematerialization opportunities. And all of this isn’t even delving into the energy-efficiency opportunities that IT networks can offer for the power grid and other systems. If you want to check out my entire argument, read more on GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Image courtesy of Flickr, creative commons.

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  1. Its an interesting piece this, I never really thought about digital media and stuff like that being much better for the environment overall. I wouldn’t like it to all be digital though, I love my phisical records too much!

  2. Green Ink: The End of Clunkers, High-Speed Mirage, and Vertical Farms – Environmental Capital – WSJ Monday, August 24, 2009

    [...] [...]

  3. Really good idea. Only too much digital life shouldn’t lead to more of internet addiction etc kinda stuff.

  4. I appreciate the perspective of this piece. Now having seen it, I look forward to exploring your site further. I was tipped off to this post by the Wall Street Journal’s environmental capital blog.

    With that knowledge that I am not yet familiar with the rest of the discussion on this site in mind let me say that while I see the value of the Internet’s ability to limit our production of more and more stuff, a discussion about the online world’s environmental benefits has to delve much deeper. When we examine how we can save on resource extraction and utilization, we also have to think about the energy required to power the online world. Sometimes our examinations of our carbon footprints end after we’ve locked our car (or shunned it for a bike or public transit). We need to also think about the source of energy we require to power our server farms and run our equipment, as well as the materials used in our technology. That last note is more important than we think. Resources such as Coltan, for example, are skyrocketing in value. As the mineral becomes more lucrative, we need to pay closer attention to the impacts its extraction has both on the human environment (in terms of resource wars akin to those more commonly associated with the diamond trade) and the natural environment (considering the impact of coltan extraction on gorilla habitats and other sensitive areas).

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the goal of this post, and, as I suggested, you may have discussed some of these other issues elsewhere on your blog (and if so, I look forward to reading those posts). Thanks for sharing this thought and for reminding us of the importance of dematerialization.

  5. Cyber Monday vs. Black Friday — a Carbon Emissions Comparison Monday, November 30, 2009

    [...] the carbon reductive powers of broadband-enabled dematerialization, or reducing physical goods and transportation with virtual options, is very real. According to The [...]

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