BCG: Tech Industry the Solution to—and Cause of—Climate Problems

The tech industry has been responsible for driving humanity headlong into the information age, with innovations that have empowered and enriched the ways we work, play, and interact with one another and the world around us. Yet for all the revolutionary changes that have taken place, technology also drives an enormous amount of pollution, waste, and environmental and social damage. A group of Boston Consulting Group (BCG) researchers recently shared their insights on the dual impact of tech with DataDecisionMakers, laying out a view of an industry that must innovate solutions for the problems it creates.

While new technology holds the promise of helping us build a more sustainable world, the tech industry itself is staggeringly unsustainable, and according to the BCG contributors, must not only take ownership of its impact on the world around us, but must go further to proactively address these challenges before they become too entrenched to change. According to Yale environmental scientist Karen Seto, there are three types of “carbon lock-ins” that can cause emissions to become entrenched in a sector, exacerbating climate change. All three types are present in today’s tech sector, and unless they are addressed now, they will be substantially more difficult to reverse in the future.

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Behavioral lock-ins related to demand for goods and services is the first lock-in, leading to enormous amounts of “hard” e-waste, as well as the “soft” waste of inefficient practices and efficiency gains that are offset by their rebound effects. Institutional lock-ins involve governance, institution, and decision-making impacting production and consumption, shaping energy supply and demand, where sustainability often takes a backseat to policy and process demands. Last, infrastructural lock-ins are an ever-present concern, given the vast quantities of rare earth minerals and silicon required to produce hardware.

The researchers go on to make the case for the tech industry to be more intentional in its direction, stating that initial low-hanging efficiency gains are largely realized at this point, and that future efforts must be focused on placing sustainability at the center of decision making. As technology continues to evolve, avoiding climate lock-ins will help it deliver on the promise of a better world for all.