Digitalisation is a major ‘wild-card’ in the pursuit of a cessation of global warming. Digital technologies can directly and indirectly increase or decrease GHG emissions, and these effects can be categorised into three types of effect:
1. First-order effects: direct GHG emissions from the raw material acquisition, production, use and end-of-life treatment of digital technologies (i.e., those comprising data centers, data transmission networks, and connected devices); also referred to as the footprint or lifecycle impacts of digital goods, networks or services or, using another categorization, of devices and digital infrastructure;
2. Second-order effects: indirect effects on emissions resulting from digitalization—the use of digital technologies and services—which can increase or decrease emissions beyond their footprint; positive second-order effects that decrease emissions are known under names such as ‘enabling effects’, ‘abatement’ and ‘avoided emissions’; this effect is sometimes also referred to as the ‘handprint’; negative second-order effects can be referred to as ‘added emissions’;
3. Third-order effects: other indirect effects on emissions stemming from the first- or second-order effects of digitalization, such as rebound, changes in consumption patterns, lifestyles and value systems, which can result in increased or decreased emissions. They are sometimes referred to as ‘other’ effects or ‘higher order’ effects.
This paper assesses the methodological challenges in estimating each of these effects, and thus the future of digitisation as a tool to combat global warming.