ICT as a substitute for travel is the industry’s first response to the question of sustainability. This idea has been pushed for several years, particularly as a substitute for traveling to work – often called ‘telecommuting’. Indeed, it’s been advocated since before anyone talked about sustainability or climate change – as a solution to traffic congestion, oil supply, and as a tool of regional policy. There is a great number of specialist companies and consultancies, and other initiatives and alliances like Workwise, which exist to provide support for companies that want to introduce teleworking.
It has spawned a vast literature, some of which actually includes some empirical research, like this chapter in the Department for Transport’s “smarter travel” report.
There is much discussion of videoconferencing as a substitute for air travel, and some companies are at least tracking the impact on their own demand for air travel. It’s worth noting that Cisco, which is a great proponent of this approach, has informally confirmed that videoconferencing uses more energy and produces more emissions than a single person travelling across London from one side to the other.
I’m not aware of much serious analysis of the actual impact on emissions of not travelling to work, though there are lots of guides as to how to do it. Among the factors which would need to be taken into account are:
- the mode of transport for which ICT is substituting
- the distances being travelled, the responsiveness of the supply of that mode of transport to changes in demand
- what happens to the ’empty’ space at work that used to be occupied by the commuting worker
- how the telecommuter’s home is heated or cooled.
If I used to take the bus in to an office, and the bus still runs, and my desk at work still sits there in its air-conditioned space, and I then heat my badly insulated Victorian terrace with an inefficient boiler, I might not have saved any CO2.
It’s worth looking at this report by the Future Foundation, and this one by the Forum for the Future. I was particularly impressed by some research carried out for Orange, which emphasised the extent to which “flexible working” in the UK was dominated by informal arrangements between staff and their line managers rather than by formal arrangements; this rather suggests that organisations are not using the introduction of flexibility to think again about how they could decarbonise their working arrangements and facilities.
Other aspects of ICT as a substitute for travel don’t seem to have been nearly as well researched, even though Eurostat analysis appears to show that travel to work is only about 20% of travel time in Northern European countries – with travel for leisure accounting for something like twice as much. ICT can make it easier for us to shop without travelling, but I’m not aware of any evidence that this is having any significant impact.
There are a few other curiositites. DFT has paid for some consultancy which led to a report on Synthetic Environments in Transport about the use of things like Second Life to model transport experiences – but nothing about using these as a substitute for travel. And there’s a slightly unusual report about ‘virtual pilgrimages‘ here.