The most significant threats today’s world faces are variations in weather conditions and the heating of the globe (Jafri et al. 2020; Sohail et al. 2021). Literature, in this context, is rising, and empirics are trying to find the factors that can achieve a sustainable environment. Notably, the efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) gathered pace after the world leaders signed Kyoto Protocol in 1997. In order to control GHG emissions, renewable energy can prove helpful; hence, it is included as a 17th goal in the sustainable development goals (SDGs) of the united nations (UN). In 2018, the international panel on climate change (IPCC) highlighted that to attain net-zero status, i.e., to maintain the temperature of 1.5°C by 2050, the GHG emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 against the 2010 levels. One of the main reasons, pointed out by various studies, behind the global GHG emissions is increased economic activities worldwide. Consistent with this view, the celebrated work of Grossman and Kreuger (1994) stated that at the initial stage of economic growth, the CO2 emissions increase, whereas at the later stage of economic development, CO2 emissions decline. Nevertheless, empirics have yet to reach an agreement on whether the effects of growth on the environmental quality also relied on the use of environmentally friendly technologies and priorities or not.
Meanwhile, digitalization has gained immense momentum in recent decades, and it has transformed the way individuals, consumers and firms act, work and communicate worldwide. This phenomenon is ascribed to the advent of “information and communication technologies (ICT)” mainly internet and mobile phone technologies that produce new products and processes, additional market mechanisms and organizational complexities, together with technological advances. Now ICT is increasingly penetrating the global economy. The use of ICT-related products is influencing all spheres of life including economic, social, political, ecological aspects. The empirical literature has provided substantial evidence to support the hypothesis that ICT use increases economic growth (Habibi & Zabardast 2020; Niebel, 2018; Majeed and Ayub, 2018).
One group of studies argues that the role of digitization for economic prosperity varies depending upon the development level of digitizing economies and the measure of digitization (Habibi & Zabardast 2020; Myovella et al. 2020; Usman et al. 2020). Habibi and Zabardast (2020) for Middle East countries, Myovella et al. (2020) for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries and Usman et al. 2020 for South Asian economies conclude that the benefits of digitation are dissimilar across countries. Contrary to this, using panel data of 122 developing countries from 2003 to 2015, Majeed (2020) provided robust empirical evidence of favourable role of digitization for the performance of the developing world. These studies, however, frame the importance of digitization for the economic prosperity of developed and developing economies. Whether digitization is a blessing for a green economy, or it hinders the management of the green economy? The answer to this question has received little attention. Moreover, the extant empirical studies provide conflicting results.
Theoretically, the nature of the relationship between digitalization and environmental quality is quite complicated and diverse. Two different opinions exist in this context: one argues that digitalization is a hurdle in the way of achieving a clean and green economy, and the other thinks vice versa. Digitalization increases ICT use, which in turn exerts more burden on the environment through a rise in energy consumption due to production, consumption, and disposal of ICT-related products (OECD, 2010; Houghton, 2015; Majeed, 2018). Moreover, digitalization also helps increase production efficiency, reduce the cost of production, and makes the product cheaper. As a result, the overall demand for the products increases which deteriorates the environmental quality (Majeed, 2018; Plepys, 2002).
On the other side, the studies like Plepys, 2002 and Lashkarizadeh and Salatin, 2012 supported the idea that digitalization can help develop environmentally friendly technologies and proved a blessing for the environment. Apart from managing the environmental-related risks digitalization can also anticipate these risks. For instance, simulation machines help in “learning by simulation,” which is beneficial for policymaking and supervising critical consequences of trial and error. Similarly, the spillover effects of awareness, knowledge, and information in conserving the environment can also be spread through digitalization appears in the form of “internet network” (Majeed, 2018). Another effect that helps achieve better environmental quality via digitalization is the “ dematerialization effect” which transforms the economy's outlook from physical to information resources. Moreover, as a result of dematerialization, vehicle movement in society lessens because people rely more on e-commercing, online trading, virtual meetings, and distance learning. Further, ICT offers innovative and mechanized answers like power production, digital revolution, and smart cities.
One strand of the literature argues that the impact of digitization on environmental sustainability depends upon the response of energy demand to increasing digitization. The literature suggests both the positive and negative effects of digitization on energy demand (see, for details, Lange et al., 2020). On the one hand, increasing use of the internet and other ICT tools increases the more use of electricity. On the other hand, ICT investments substitute the demand for labour use and energy for production processes, therefore alleviating the burden on the environment (Khayyat et al. 2016). The actual association between digitalization and energy demand stems from four impacts namely “direct effects, changes in energy efficiencies, economic growth and sectoral change” (Lange et al. 2020). Thus, the net effect on energy demand and consequently on environmental sustainability can vary from country to country.
The studies that have tried to explore digitalization-environment nexus can be categorized into three different groups. The first set of studies include the studies which confirm the favorable impact of ICT on environmental quality. For instance, Lashkarizadeh and Salatin (2012) gathered the data for 43 developed and developing economies confirmed that ICT improves the environmental qualities in the selected economies. Further, Zhang and Liu (2015) for China, Ozcan, and Apergis (2018) for emerging markets, and Lu ( 2018), in the context of 12 Asian countries, found favorable effects of ICT on the environment. The second set of studies include those studies which found that digitalization hurt the environmental quality. These studies, include Liu et al. (2006), and Salahuddin et al. (2016) confirmed that digitalization hurts the environmental quality of China and OECD countries, respectively. Lastly, the third set of studies provided mixed results. For example, using panel data of 132 developed and developing countries over the period 1980–2016, Majeed (2018) found out that digitization mitigates environmental pollution in the developed economies while escalates emissions in the developing world.
The aforementioned discussion suggests that the empirical literature on digitization-environment nexus is not yet conclusive and further research is required. Further, the literature indicates that digitization can have diverse effects across different income groups of countries. Moreover, empirics mainly emphasized a single aspect of digitalization. However, no empirical evidence on the digitalization-environment nexus in the context of BRICS is available to date. BRICS economies are the fastest-growing emerging economies and genuinely striving hard to attain the status of developed economies; hence, exploring the nexus in the BRICS context is pertinent.
Despite increasing research and understanding of environmental problems, ecological disruption is still high. In this scenario, researchers need to go beyond conventional determinants of CO2 emissions and need to think about other avenues such as education and awareness to tackle environmental problems. That is the role of education is fundamental in explaining ecological concerns. Education reflects the quality of human capital in a society. For instance, an increase in human capital helps the economies to conserve energy and resources by decreasing a large amount of wastage (Zen et al., 2014). Moreover, education stimulates people to embrace environmental rules and guidelines, consequently, ecological superiority (Majeed & Mazhar 2020; Desha et al., 2015). Majeed and Mazhar (2020) collected data for developed, middle-income, and low-income nations and strongly supported the notion that human capital improves environmental quality. Similarly, Ahmed et al. (2020) found a similar type of results for G-7 economies.
Against this backdrop, in this study, our primary focus is to investigate the effects of digitalization and education on the CO2 emissions in BRICS economies by collecting data from 1990–2018. To the best of our knowledge, no previous studies have explored the dynamic relationship between digitalization, education, and CO2 emissions in the BRICS economies. Therefore, this is the first-ever study that has tried to explore the impact of digitalization and education on CO2 emission in the BRICS economies.
The analysis has chosen the BRICS economies, which is based on the rationale that BRICS economies truly represent the developing and emerging economies, and their role on the world stage is increasing with every passing day. Moreover, these economies have become the most significant contributors to CO2 emissions at a global level. Therefore, selecting these economies will provide a clear picture of how digitalization and education will affect CO2 emission in emerging and developing economies, which will help policymakers in the emerging markets and developing economies achieve a better environment.
The contribution of this study in the current literature is multi-dimensional. Firstly, the analysis investigates the dynamic impact of digitalization and education on the CO2 emissions in the BRICS economies. Secondly, the results for each country is provided in a comparative setting. Thirdly, the analysis employs two different measures of digitalization. Fourthly, researchers lack agreement on the impacts of digitalization on CO2 emissions, i.e., positive, negative, or inconclusive, and this analysis will help solve this puzzle (Majeed, 2018). Fifthly, this analysis also includes education in the carbon emission function of BRICS economies because CO2 emissions increase due to social and economic activities of men, and education (human capital) can help control the CO2 emissions. Lastly, this study relies on the ARDL technique that will be helpful in getting both short and long-run estimates in the context of BRICS economies.
This is a novel study for BRICS economies that trace short and long-run dynamics of digitization for environmental degradation using ARDL approach over the period 1990–2018. The findings of this study are supportive for helpful academicians, development practitioners, environmentalists, telecommunication authorities, ICT industries, and international organizations. This study endeavors policy suggestions for preserving the environment in the present digitizing world. The findings of this research are helpful for those economies which are deploying digital infrastructure and for economies that are prioritizing human capital investment.
The rest of the paper is organized in the following manner. A short explanation of the “model, data, and methodology” is provided in Sect. 2. The empirical results and their discussion are reported in Sect. 3. Finally, Sect. 4 provides a conclusion of the paper and suggests some suitable policy implications.