Feeling guilty about those hours you spent over the holidays shopping at dot com stores? Take solace in the thought that your online habits might help stave off global warming, according to a provocative new report.
Struck by data showing a plateau in U.S. energy consumption just as the commercial Internet has taken off, researchers at the nonprofit Center for Energy and Climate Solutions near Washington, D.C., set about analyzing how online shopping, telecommuting, and other Net habits may be saving energy. For example, the group calculates that buying a book from Amazon.com instead of from a bookstore consumes 1/16 as much energy, as Amazon.com sells eight times as many books per square meter of building space and has lower square-meter utility costs. Supporting this hypothesis, says lead author Joseph Romm, a former head of energy efficiency at the Department of Energy (DOE), are "astonishing data" showing that the economy boomed 4% in 1997 and 1998 while energy consumption barely rose. Despite low fuel prices, energy consumption per dollar of gross domestic product fell more than 3% each of those years, a trend too large to be explained by factors such as warmer winters, says Romm. If the pattern holds, "it will be much easier to meet the Kyoto [climate treaty] targets than everybody says," he says.
Some observers call the report's conclusions premature. The gain in energy efficiency "is certainly consistent with a beneficial effect of computers in the marketplace," but drawing conclusions from only 2 years of data "leaves me just a tad skeptical," says Joel Darmstadter of Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C.