Report on the Environmental Impact of Communication Systems

Now thats green communication technology!

Now that's green communication technology!

Sometimes the idea of environmental communication gets taken to mean something like communication that is environmental. In this sense, it is communication that is environmentally aware/conscious/friendly. This is somewhat different from how the field is typically conceived, namely as communication about and affecting environmental affairs. It is true that one of the things some people working in this field are after is forms and methods of communication that will help bring about a bright, sustainable, clean, green and eco-friendly future. But environmental communication as a field and as a practice actually encompasses a range of ideological positions. And because we theorists and practitioners tend to focus on communication techniques, messages, and outcomes, we don’t often get self-reflexive about just how eco-conscious our communication technologies are.

I got to thinking about this because a colleague directed me to a recent report from the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom), the Kingdom’s “independent regulator and competition authority for the communication industries.” The report, Understanding the Environmental Impact of Communications Systems, is a preliminary analysis of the environmental impacts that current broadcast and wireless telecommunication systems are having. Not surprisingly, the authors found significant impacts:

Amongst the many types of environmental impacts that can be identified, the major environmental impact for communications systems is Climate Change, so carbon emissions related to energy consumption are the first environmental management priority. Dominant contributors are operational (use-phase) energy, and embodied carbon from manufacturing. Following these, electronic waste, use and toxicity of materials and, for infrastructure, visual and landscape use impacts are key environmental issues.

One of the reasons they cite for undertaking this research is so that the regulator can begin to take environmental impacts into account in its decisions. Given the proliferation of mobile phone towers and energy-sucking super-sized TV’s, not to mention the endless landscapes of used or just out-of-fashion electronics (e-waste), we seem to be going in the wrong direction (Note: this is a focus of Toby Miller’s GreenCitizen blog). I certainly don’t want to detract from Ofcom’s efforts, but truly greening the material reality and energy consumption of the telecom and broadcast systems seems a long way off. But, perhaps I’m mistaken. Do any of you know of any particularly promising initiatives in these areas?

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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