The net effect of these trends on the environment is mixed. According to Kohler and Erdmann (2004), the expanded use of ICT applications will ultimately result in both benefits to the environment, as well as some new problems associated with their use. The extent to which the negative effects are mitigated will ultimately depend on the foresight that is used today to develop long-term energy and waste management policies that will control the development of ICT infrastructures and how they are used in the future (Kohler & Erdmann, 2004).
According to Lan and Thomas (2009), there is no escaping the fact that information and communication technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of commerce and hold important promise for economic development in the future. These authors are quick at add, though, that proceeding with these technologies is a complex enterprise and there are still a number of unknowns involved concerning how ICT will ultimately have an effect on the environment and what can be done now to avoid potentially disastrous outcomes in the future (Lan & Thomas, 2009). According to Lan and Thomas (2009), though, there remains a dearth of timely and relevant studies in this area that can help inform policymakers concerning what steps are needed and in what order they should be implemented. In this regard, Frey, Harrison and Billett (2006) report that some useful methods that have been developed specifically for this purpose include ecological footprint analyses, which have been in use for 2 decades already and have been shown to provide a fairly accurate assessment of the environmental impact of various ICT initiatives. For instance, environmental footprint analysis assess "the bioproductive areas required to produce resources such as crops and timber, the directly occupied areas for infrastructure, and areas for absorbing waste flows (mostly limited to carbon dioxide) in a given year for a defined population" (Frey et al., 2006, p. 199).
There is also the matter of e-waste disposal, discussed further below, which have required some means for assessment as to their environmental impact. In this regard, much of the research on mobile telephones to date has been limited to the problems involved in their disposal as e-waste rather than the broader sustainability issues that are involved in their proliferation (Frey et al., 2006). Despite the introduction of the ecological footprint analytical methodology, there remains a paucity of other effective tools and approaches that can accurately make these types of assessments, due in part to the relative newness of many of the deployed technologies.
Consequently, there is a need to further explore the relationship between ICT and the environment in ways that can provide researchers with the information they need today to take the steps necessary to prevent the explosion in ICT use from introducing yet additional environmental degradations in the future (Frey et al., 2006). To this end, Lan and Thomas suggest that an expert system could be developed to help analysts project the environmental consequences of various ICT initiatives before they are launched in order to integrate measures to minimize the environmental impact. According to Lan and Thomas, "An expert decision support system, built around neural networks with a user-friendly interface and able to post-process data to information [should be] developed. The system could be used, for example, by an individual company to analyze how its ICT adoptions influence its environmental performance" (2009, p. 361).
Beyond the foregoing, Hosman, Fife and Armey (2008) call for greater collaboration and communication between researchers, the government and the business community concerning their current and future ICT needs for many of the same planning purposes as described above.
In this dynamic environment, identifying the most effective uses for ICT to promote environmentally sustainable initiatives demands an ongoing approach because innovations in technology continue to redefine the field. Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of the recent research concerning the effect of ICT and environment sustainable initiatives has focused on the applications of these technologies for environmental monitoring and within environmental projects (Daly, 2005). The research to date indicates that ICT can be used to improve environmental sustainability by facilitating:
1. Reduction in the costs of transactions carried out over distances;
2. The ability to obtain and manage (environmental) data on scales and in situations previously impossible;
3. The ability to conduct quantitative analysis (of environmentally relevant information) in real time at unprecedented depth;
4. The ability to communicate between public, civil society, government and the private sector with unprecedented coverage and efficiency, and,
5. The ability to control processes electronically, enabling great precision to be achieved in real-time control of complex systems (Daly, 2005, p. 2).
In addition, Daly (2005) provides a number of other ways in which ICT can be valuable in promoting environmental sustainability, including:
1. ICT makes it possible for the first time in history to detect environmental problems at very large and very small scales;
2. ICT permits unprecedented monitoring of environmental quality, and unprecedented accuracy in detection of the sources and projection of the development of environmental problems;
3. ICT can be used to empower people with unprecedented understanding of environmental systems, and of the interplay between environment and development.
4. ICT can be used to allow unprecedented intensity of communication on such issues among all sectors of society; and,
5. Almost any intervention that can be identified to improve sustainability or reclaim degraded environmental systems can benefit from appropriate applications of ICT (Daly, 2005, p. 3).
Despite these positive outcomes, Daly (2005) is also quick to caution that the prevailing perspectives concerning ICT applications for environmental monitoring applications may overlook the long-term impact of these ICT applications. In this regard, Daly believes that a more appropriate approach to promote environmentally sustainable programs is to ensure that ICT is carefully and thoughtfully integrated with agriculture and land use planning efforts, that is used to help streamline industrial processes while simultaneously reducing toxic emissions, and to help develop more effective and intensive agricultural and forestry programs to help feed a rapidly growing global population and provide the wood products that will be needed in the future (Daly, 2005). To this end, Daly believes that "it may be more crucial to understand the effects of the ICT revolution on trends of urban growth, and to incorporate such considerations in national planning, than to focus on ICT in planning for the sustainability of 'environmental projects'" (p. 3). These broad-based contributions of ICT to environmental sustainability represent useful points of departure for future research.
The foregoing observations are consistent with analysts at the Brookings Institute who report, "ICT improves farmers' market information, raising agricultural production" (p. 176). Moreover, ICT can help develop environmentally sustainable initiative in the prevention of desertification by providing improvements in land husbandry practices by using better controls to prevent soil erosion improve soil fertility; in addition, ICT can help water management practices to help provide for human and agricultural needs (Ending Africa's poverty trap, 2004). As noted above, though, ICT is not a "magic bullet" ready to solve all of mankind's problems, but rather requires a thoughtful and methodical approach to achieve positive outcomes; as also noted above, there are some downside to the proliferation of the hardware used to support ICT initiatives, ironically enough, even for those being used for environmentally sustainable programs, and these issues are discussed further below.
The Environmental Impact of ICT
While information and communications technologies may not have a direct effect on the environment to any major extent while they are in use and their use can benefit the environment is a number of ways as discussed above, there is a downside to the proliferation of all of this high-tech equipment, though. In this regard, Kohler and Erdmann (2004) suggest that ICT will most likely not have a dramatic effect on the environment, the use of a number of toxic materials in ICT and the manner in which they are disposed can have some deleterious environmental effects. In fact, Schmidt (2006) reports that planned obsolescence is a major marketing tool for ICT manufacturers, creating a vicious cycle of short-term use followed by disposal in municipal waste streams, making e-waste a growing problem across the country.
The problem, of course, is not restricted to the United States along, but is rather on a global scale. According to Huo, Peng, Xu, Zheng, Qiu, Qi, Han and Piao (2007), e-waste in municipal waste streams is a global problem, an assertion that is supported by a number of authorities. For example, Schmidt (2002) emphasizes that:
e-Waste is the fastest growing component of municipal trash by a factor of three, according to the European Commission. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, consumer electronics in the United States already account for 70% of the heavy metals, including 40% of the lead, found in landfills. Getting all this toxic e-junk out of the waste stream is an environmental priority. (p. 188)
As the above observations are almost a decade old and the…