Internet Society Foundation Funds New Research on the Environmental Footprint of Digital Economy

Updated: Jul 27



January 2021

(Washington, DC):


Internet Society Foundation Funds New Research on the Environmental Footprint of the Digital Economy


Digital technologies are rapidly transforming the way we access and process information, impacting the global economy and our social dynamics. These dramatic changes have important environmental and energy implications, yet a dearth of research in the field leaves decision makers in an information void that can impact public policies, business decisions, and consumer choices. Providing in-depth analysis of energy and environmental impacts of existing and emerging technologies remains an unmet social challenge – one that the Project on the Energy and Environmental Implications of the Digital Economy seeks to address.


The Project, a collaboration between the Environmental Law Institute, Yale School of the Environment, and UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, has three main functions: to identify and fund high-value research that can address timely and unmet needs for environmental research of the digital economy; to help build and support a network of researchers engaged in this effort into the future; and to provide a bridge between the policy, business, and research communities to improve the assimilation and impact of research results. We are happy to announce a new $200,000 grant from the Internet Society Foundation to continue our work and to further efforts to “green” the Internet. This award will be used to launch three research projects and continue to explore approaches to identify high-value research for future funding.


The Carbon Footprint of Airbnb seeks to address the lack of research on the climate impacts of the sharing platform Airbnb with a four person interdisciplinary team of social scientists and engineers from Boston College (Juliet Schor), Northeastern (Özlem Ergun, Qi Wang), and Fairfield (Mehmet Cansoy). Rapid growth in platform activity impacts urban emissions and could jeopardize cities’ emission reduction pledges. This will be the first study of the changing distribution of Airbnb listings and the associated mobility patterns of Airbnb guests, comparing the ten largest Airbnb urban markets and providing data and recommendations for municipal authorities and ride hailing firms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


The second project, What Happens to My Product Returns: The Hidden Environmental Cost of Online Sales, seeks to quantify the full life cycle environmental impacts of product returns and reveal how they might affect the environmental performance of e-commerce more broadly. While academic investigations into the environmental impacts of e-commerce typically focus on the impacts incurred between factory gate and consumer door (i.e., forward logistics), what happens after products are returned and the full life cycle environmental impacts associated with product returns remain vastly understudied. Dr. Tamar Makov, Assistant Professor at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and her collaborators Dr. Vered Blass (Tel Aviv University) and Prof. Charles Corbett (UCLA) will be leading this research effort.


The third project is UC Santa Barbara Associate Research Scientist Brandon Kuczenski’s Open Science Behind Closed Doors: Empowering Citizens to Use Their Private Data for Decision-making, which is designed to provide consumers with a credible way to connect environmental footprint information on their individual consumption to make better-informed decisions. Dr. Kuczenski's project will invert the traditional “footprint calculator,” establishing data vaults to store consumption data and creating a library of footprinting models that users can "check out" and compare privately. Through the use of multi-party computation, the work will empower individuals to collaborate and gain new insights about their environmental impacts and those of their peers.


The projects will be mentored as they progress with an eye on securing further funding, ensuring high-quality outputs, and maximizing visibility of key findings. Additional research projects are being sought for future funding. If interested, please send a short paragraph describing your research goals to digitaleconomy@eli.org.


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