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Digital transformation can improve resource and process efficiency in firms, and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by households can improve quality of life. However, as a potential enabler of circularity, rebound effects that increase consumption activity, as well as the implications of digitalisation for bulk material recycling must be considered. Empirical analysis supported by life cycle assessment, coupled with forward-looking modelling of digitalisation’s role in the circular economy, can help estimate quantitative trends both for monitoring progress and for informing policy interventions.

In the CircEUlar project, we will be assessing the contribution of digitalisation toward net-zero and circular economy targets under different social and economic development assumptions (the ‘Shared Socioeconomic Pathways’ (SSPs) used in IPCC assessments). We will use methodologies that bridge from historical trends to statistical projections of future pathways, demonstrated globally for the waste management sector (published recently in Science). However, digitalisation poses additional challenges as it has no clear sectoral boundaries, and so accounting methods for estimating the net contribution of digitalisation to energy and material flows are complex.

We aim to tackle these challenges in CircEUlar’s Work Package 5, “New Modelling Approaches for Scaling up the Circular Economy” , by starting with a generalised model of countries’ ICT infrastructure and its impact on GHG emissions and circular economy. Then in subsequent stages, we will extend the model to include ICT devices, and the indirect effects of digitalisation on energy demand through changes in behaviour.

By Yee Van Fan – OXF