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Assessing indirect environmental effects of information and communication technology (ICT): A systematic literature review

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Journal Article

Bieser, Jan, and Lorenz Hilty. 2018. “Assessing indirect environmental effects of information and communication technology (ICT): A systematic literature review.” Sustainability 10 (8): 2662.

Indirect environmental effects of information and communication technology (ICT) are those effects of ICT that change patterns of production or consumption in domains other than ICT, or more precisely, the environmental consequences of these changes. Digitalization as the societal
process of ICT-driven change has created increasing interest in the indirect environmental effects
of this technology. Assessments of indirect effects face various methodological challenges, such as
the definition of the system boundary, the definition of a baseline as a reference or the occurrence
of rebound effects. Existing studies use various approaches or methods to assess a spectrum of ICT use cases in several application domains. In view of the large number of assessments that have been conducted, the choices made when applying assessment methods, and the variety of ICT use cases in different application domains investigated, we present a systematic literature review of existing assessments of indirect environmental effects of ICT. The review provides a state-of-the-art overview of the methods used in the research field and is intended to support researchers in designing
sound assessments which yield significant results. We identified 54 studies in seven main application
domains using 15 different assessment approaches. The most common application domains are virtual mobility (e.g., telecommuting), virtual goods (e.g., digital media), and smart transport (e.g., route optimization). Life-cycle assessment, partial footprint, and the “ICT enablement method” are the
most common approaches. The major part of the assessments focuses on patterns of production
(e.g., production of paper-based books vs. e-books), a smaller part on patterns of consumption (e.g., changes in media consumption). Based on these results, we identify as a research gap the investigation of ICT impacts on consumer behavior, which could, for example, focus on social practices, and account for the dynamic implications of change. Elaborating such an approach could
provide valuable insights into ICT’s impact on society and the resulting environmental consequences.

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