Page 6 of 13ICTD and Environmental Sustainability
It has already been noted that the issue of sustainability is being given increasing importance in ICTD. This is driven by an increasing awareness that the pace of change suggested by ICT innovation has not necessarily led to rapid improvements in the relative positions of rich and poor peoples with respect to equity and life experience (McNamara 2003). When ICTs revolutionize non-digital practices, how can we ensure that those benefits are maximized not just in the immediate present, but for generations to come? This perspective prompts us to consider the physical environments where people live and work in the information economy. These concerns become particularly pressing in an era of global warming, an unintended consequence of previous technological innovations that have been central to economic development (The Presidents of National Science Academies 2005). The potential of ICTs to reduce resource consumption - through the reduction of paper use and travel expenses and through efficiency gains - is well-known. However, the negative environmental effects do seem to be distributed to less developed countries where appropriate regulatory controls are not always in place to govern the disposal of obsolete computer products.
Grossman (2006) notes that the world generates somewhere between 20 and 50 million metric tons of "e-waste" every year, and that the elements that illuminate liquid crystal display (LCD) screens in portable technologies can cause damage to the brain and other vital organs. These issues are not necessarily present when we are considering the ICTD potential of mobile phones for example. But when we note that over one billion phones are expected to be sold in 2009, and that only 5 percent of them are ever recycled, the scale of the issue becomes clear (Huang and Truong 2008).
These waste products enter other parts of the human ecosystem in ways we do not expect. For example, Weidenhamer and Clement (2007) found that some jewellery manufactured in China was highly leaded (ranging from 0.07 percent to 99.1 percent lead content), consistent with the use of recycled solder from electronics production. Such jewellery has already caused consumer deaths and, undoubtedly, there are negative effects on those working in the manufacture of these items. It should be noted that China is unique only in the scale of its manufacturing, and it has taken many legislative steps to ensure the responsible use of e-waste (People's Republic of China - Ministry of Information 2006). However, it is clear that with e-waste being increasingly sent to developing countries in the region for disposal, the issue will require stronger enforcement of regulations and sensitivity to the downstream effects of electronic production. Ironically, although ICTs can reduce the use of resources such as paper, the largest gains in resource savings occur in already resource-rich regions, while unsafe byproducts are much more likely to be distributed in poorer regions.