Potential Climate Benefits of Digital Consumer Innovations

Authors: Charlie Wilson, Laurie Kerr, Frances Sprei, Emilie Vrain, and Mark Wilson

Published in:  Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Vol. 45:113-144 (Volume publication date October 2020) https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-012320-082424

Date Published: 29 July 2020


Digitalization has opened up a wealth of new goods and services with strong consumer appeal alongside potential emission-reduction benefits. Examples range from shared, on-demand electric mobility and peer-to-peer trading of electricity, food, and cars to grid-responsive smart appliances and heating systems. In this review, we identify an illustrative sample of 33 digital consumer innovations that challenge emission-intensive mainstream consumption practices in mobility, food, homes, and energy domains. Across these domains, digital innovations offer consumers a range of potentially appealing attributes from control, choice, and convenience to independence, interconnectedness, and integration with systems. We then compile quantitative estimates of change in activity, energy, or emissions as a result of consumers adopting digital innovations. This novel synthesis of the evidence base shows clear but variable potential emission-reduction benefits of digital consumer innovations. However, a small number of studies show emission increases from specific innovations as a result of induced demand or substitution effects that need careful management by public policy. We also consider how concurrent adoption of digital consumer innovations across mobility, food, homes, and energy domains can cause broader disruptive impacts on regulatory frameworks, norms, and infrastructures. We conclude by arguing for the importance of public policy in steering the digitalization of consumer goods and services toward low-carbon outcomes.

Keywords: consumers, digital innovations, climate change, mobility, food, homes, energy

Insights for EnergyREV:

A range of digital consumer innovations from mobility-as-a-service apps to smart home technologies and electric vehicle-to-grid offer significant benefits for emission reductions.