E-business is good for transport and resource efficiency

E-business can create a number of environmental benefits, such as increased resource efficiency and a lower use of transport, but companies need to beware that these effects may be offset by a range of factors, such as those produced by the impersonal nature of the internet, according to a new report commissioned by British Telecom (BT).

According to research carried out by SustainIT, an initiative of the UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development (UK CEED), for BT as part of its Environmental and Social report for 2001, there are a variety of positive environmental effects of the company’s e-business activities. The most important effects are those resulting from the company’s internet conferencing and flexi-working initiatives. Audioconferencing within BT is saving the company 150 million miles of travel per year, 54 million miles of which is car travel, and 39 million miles of airplane travel, as well as an estimated 34,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, and seven million litres of fuel costing £6 million (US$8.4 million). The company’s flexi-working programme, which allows employees to work from home, is estimated to have resulted in an average reduction of 424,000 miles of car travel and 190,000 miles of rail travel per week. However, these reductions could be offset by increases in other kinds of travel, such as through other members of a household taking advantage of a car sitting in the drive, warn the report’s authors, who intend to carry out future research into such effects.

BT has also moved into online administration and procurement, the first of which includes the company’s e-billing initiative, where customers can look at their bills on the internet, for which one million customers registered between April 2000 and January 2001. According to the report, the scheme has reduced paper use by over two million sheets and two million envelopes. Savings from the company’s purchasing online initiative have included 5.8 tonnes of paper by publishing its 100+ page catalogues online, and one tonne of paper from the 24,500 order pads which were previously printed. By providing online information, the company has also saved thousands of tonnes of paper per year, with savings including £200,000 in print and distribution costs through publishing its biannual magazine online.

However, the report’s authors point out that in general, with online commerce there is a risk that the impersonality and price driven nature of this method of trade could mean that little or no attention is paid to environmental issues, and could also result in factors such as increased journeys by delivery lorries. Savings in paper could also be offset by the printing out of information by local desk-top printers.

“BT’s own business activities are relatively less important than the aggregate impacts of all other e-business activities conducted over its telecommunications infrastructure,” said the paper’s author, Professor Peter James. “Ensuring that the environmental impacts of these are as positive as possible – for example, by helping other companies recognise and manage their impacts – will be BT’s main long-term contribution to the sustainability of e-business.”

Similar new research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, is predicting that e-business will be the most significant force for change in the country’s transport sector, surpassing rising fuel prices and reduced oil availability.

“E-commerce is allowing customers and businesses to access products from anywhere in the world and is also creating increasing expectations for ‘right now’ deliveries,” said Professor Luis Ferreira, from Queensland University of Technology School of Civil Engineering, one of the authors of the research. “The result could be a 50% increase in intercity freight trips and a potential 50-100 percent increase in the kilometres travelled by light commercial vehicles in the major cities.” This could result in a total increase of 16% in domestic aircraft flights, he said.

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