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ELI Hosts First Workshop on Energy and Environmental Implications of the Sharing Economy

May 2017

Sharing platforms such as Uber and Airbnb now have multi-billion dollar valuations and command increasing market shares in the transportation and accommodation sectors. This is just a small piece of an exploding sector of economic activity, which includes platforms for such activities as: bike sharing; clothes sharing; food sharing; work sharing; and general goods sharing. On April 28, ELI brought together experts from academia, government (the National Science Foundation), and NGOs to explore what we know and what we need to know to begin to understand the energy and environmental impacts of the sharing economy. 
Some of the questions asked were:

How can we effectively measure the impacts of these platforms on energy use and the environment?
How can researchers gain access to the needed data to conduct this research?
Is there a way we can promote solutions that have a positive environmental benefits through polices, behavioral nudges, codes of conduct, or other means, and do this in a timely fashion before technologies become effectively locked in?
What can we learn from sharing platforms have been implemented successfully to lower energy and environmental impacts?

Among the participants included Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology, Boston College, and Mehmet Cansoy, a Ph.D. candidate in the Boston College Department of Sociology. They have been looking at the social and economic dynamics/consequences that develop around different sharing platforms and why some succeed and others fail. They drew out some differences between non-profit and for-profit platforms, for instance, impacts on racial segregation. They also shared some of their research on Airbnb and its impacts on the environment (e.g., is it taking business away from hotels or simply making more, less expensive options available, which may stimulate more travel with associated impacts?).  They hope to conduct future research on the travel and other environmental impacts resulting from Airbnb services.
Dr. Anders Fremstad, an Assistant Professor, with the Colorado State University Department of Economics, explained how society can conceivably share any good that’s purchased, which we’ve been doing to some extent for ages (e.g., garage sales). But when formal platforms are set up to facilitate peer-to-peer sharing (not only for resale, but for borrowing, etc.), many do not succeed. His research asks why. Thus far, research shows that the wealthier people get, the less likely they are to share. Also, sharing is seemingly less valued for low priced items. For example, people are more likely to share a car than they are to share a power drill, though our drills may only be used for 15-20 minutes during their entire lifetime. Nonetheless, goods sharing platforms do exist, some successfully such as Craigslist, and he recommends that we explore what the environmental impact is, on solid waste disposal for instance, when we can create more efficient secondary markets for durable goods.
David Rejeski, Director of ELI’s Technology, Innovation and the Environment Project, and Linda Breggin, a Senior Attorney at ELI, presented an overview of the opportunities for research into the emerging food sharing economy. Fueled by venture capital investments, new platforms are springing up that are making the distribution, consumption, and disposal of food more communal, more available, and (supposedly) better for the environment. The impacts these platforms will have on the environment remains unknown, and so they propose further exploration on this topic with a focus on collaborations with early startup firms.
Susan Shaheen, Co-director of the University of California/Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center of the Institute of Transportation Studies, participated via video link. She shared some of the research she has conducted into the sharing of cars, particularly as they are useful in “first-mile; last-mile” commuting. One question she raised is whether the sharing of cars is enhancing public transportation (e.g., by making it easier to get to the train) or replacing it (e.g., if it’s easier to share a car to get to work, will people opt out of public transit). There are a lot of future research needs in this area, made more difficult because the needed data is either unavailable or very difficult to access. Baseline metrics, as well as more pilot programs, are needed. Susan also advocated for public policy that seeks to promote solutions having positive impact, rather than policies that are merely reactionary.
Funding for the workshop was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Technology is substantially reshaping our ability to efficiently use shared resources,” said Evan S. Michelson, Director of Sloan’s Energy and Environment program. “ELI is bringing much needed attention to an issue with potentially far reaching energy and environmental consequences for the rapidly changing twenty-first century economy.”