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Systems thinking and efficiency under emissions constraints: Addressing rebound effects in digital innovation and policy

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Journal Article

Widdicks, Kelly, Federica Lucivero, Gabrielle Samuel, Lucas Somavilla Croxatto, Marcia Tavares Smith, Carolyn Ten Holter, Mike Berners-Lee, et al. 2023. “Systems Thinking and Efficiency under Emissions Constraints: Addressing Rebound Effects in Digital Innovation and Policy.” Patterns 4 (2): 100679.

Innovations and efficiencies in digital technology have lately been depicted as paramount in the green transition to enable the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, both in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector and the wider economy. This, however, fails to adequately account for rebound effects that can offset emission savings and, in the worst case, increase emissions. In this perspective, we draw on a transdisciplinary workshop with 19 experts from carbon accounting, digital sustainability research, ethics, sociology, public policy, and sustainable business to expose the challenges of addressing rebound effects in digital innovation processes and associated policy. We utilize a responsible innovation approach to uncover potential ways forward for incorporating rebound effects in these domains, concluding that addressing ICT-related rebound effects ultimately requires a shift from an ICT efficiency-centered perspective to a “systems thinking” model, which aims to understand efficiency as one solution among others that requires constraints on emissions for ICT environmental savings to be realized.

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