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Unraveling the Environmental Impacts of our Digital Lives / Sloan Foundation Funds New Research

August 2021

(Washington, D.C.): The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded $600,000 to the Network for the Digital Economy and the Environment (nDEE), an initiative of the Environmental Law Institute, Yale School of the Environment, and the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law that supports research to better understand the energy and environmental (E&E) impacts of digital technologies.  Since 2018, this collaborative has supported ten research projects, engaging 23 researchers from over a dozen disciplines to examine the E&E impacts of artificial intelligence, blockchains, and sharing/e-commerce platforms.

The new grant will leverage existing funding from the Internet Society Foundation that launched three nDEE projects in early 2021 focused on quantifying the carbon footprint of changes in transportation behavior due to Airbnb, exploring the environmental impact of products returns from on-line sales, and providing citizens with trustworthy and privacy secure ways to explore their environmental footprints.  Three additional research projects will be solicited and supported to better understand the indirect environmental effects of the digital economy, impacts that go beyond the increases or reductions of energy use and emissions arising from digital devices and infrastructure such as data centers. 

Reid Lifset, the grant’s principal investigator at Yale noted that, “We need a better understanding of digitalization’s indirect E&E impacts, for instance, through the substitution of digital for physical products, rebound effects that occur if savings (in time or money) from digitally-mediated behaviors induce energy-intensive activities (such as short term rental platforms increasing long distance travel), or larger structural transformations of society as, for instance, when AI changes urban structure by enabling greater autonomous vehicle use.”

This grant continues four years of investment by the Sloan Foundation, which began with a workshop to explore the environmental impacts of the sharing economy.  “New digital technologies do not necessarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions on their own; they need to be managed and implemented in the right way,” said Evan Michelson, program director at the Sloan Foundation. “That is why nDEE is so important. They are building the knowledge we need to marshal these powerful technologies in the fight against climate change.”

Researchers interested in the upcoming solicitation on indirect effects should email us at: networkDEE@berkeley.edu.