< Research Project

Earth’s Electronic Skin

Kasantha Moodley, Andrew Li

March-April 2022

Published in: The Environmental Forum

In “Earth’s Electronic Skin,” Moodley and Li explore both the environmental opportunities and challenges of what’s become known as The Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things describes a diffuse, ubiquitous, and remote network of electronic, computing devices. These devices are able to sense their surrounding environments and communicate with other devices and infrastructures via internet connections to provide novel services to end users.

IoT could be applied in many sectors such as transportation, energy, and agriculture, with putative environmental benefits. For example, with transportation, IoT could support more efficient route finding and congestion control, thereby reducing carbon emissions. It could be utilized in smart buildings and smart homes to aid electric grid operators and energy customers in better managing the production and consumption of electricity on the grid. Lastly, IoT could be deployed in the agricultural sector to achieve precision agriculture. Precision agriculture could reduce agricultural inputs through efficiency gains, increase crop yields, and reduce food waste caused by market inefficiencies.

While IoT presents possible environmental benefits, it also carries potential environmental costs. The manufacturing of IoT devices can be resource intensive and these devices generally have a shorter lifespan relative to other products. And, while individual IoT devices consume low levels of electricity, in aggregate their energy consumption can be quite large due to their sheer number. Also, IoT devices exist within a larger information and communication technology infrastructure that includes routers, switches, cell towers, cloud servers, and data centers. This enabling infrastructure requires huge amounts of energy consumption.

Moodley and Li highlight the behavioral changes that IoT can induce within society. They write that, “technological changes that increase energy, resource, or time efficiency often have the unwanted side effect of increasing overall consumption levels. The phenomenon has become known as the digital rebound effect.” Rebound effects can manifest in a variety of ways. Efficiency gains can save consumers money and these savings can sometimes be funneled toward greater levels of consumption. Digital goods and services can lead to the increased production and consumption of other goods or services (material or virtual). Lastly, skill rebound effects can reduce or remove an individual’s barrier to consumption and thereby lead to greater levels of consumption across society.

The authors conclude by highlighting the many gaps that currently exist in the governance of IoT and its environmental impacts. Researchers have advocated for models of IoT governance that distribute responsibility across geographies, sectors, and institutions. Existing international standards-setting organizations might be a good place to start. This includes groups like the International Organization for Standardization, the International Electrotechnical Commission, and the International Telecommunication Union, which already support the governance of information and communications technologies.

Citation: Kasantha, M., & Li, A. (2022). Earth’s Electronic Skin. The Environmental Forum, Volume 29, Issue 2. https://www.eli.org/the-environmental-forum/earths-electronic-skin