Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How Smartphones Are Heating Up the Planet

Climate
iStock

By Lotfi Belkhir

When we think about climate change, the main sources of carbon emissions that come to mind for most of us are heavy industries like petroleum, mining and transportation.

Rarely do we point the finger at computer technologies.


In fact, many experts view the cyber-world of information and computer technologies (ICT) as our potential savior, replacing many of our physical activities with a lower-carbon virtual alternative.

That is not what our study, recently published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, suggests.

Having conducted a meticulous and fairly exhaustive inventory of the contribution of ICT—including devices like PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones and tablets—and infrastructure like data centers and communication networks, we found that the relative contribution of ICT to the total global footprint is expected to grow from about 1 percent in 2007 to 3.5 percent by 2020 and reaching 14 percent by 2040.

That's more than half the relative contribution of the entire transportation sector worldwide.

Another disconcerting finding is that all this extraordinary growth is mostly incremental, essentially shattering the hope that ICT will help reduce the global carbon footprint by substituting physical activities with their virtual counterparts.

The Impact of Smartphones

Perhaps the most surprising result of our study was the disproportionate contribution of smartphones relative to the overall ICT footprint.

We found that the relative emissions share of smartphones is expected to grow from 4 percent in 2010 to 11 percent by 2020, dwarfing the individual contributions of PCs, laptops and computer displays.

In absolute values, emissions caused by smartphones will jump from 17 to 125 megatons of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) in that time span, or a 730 percent growth.

The lion's share of this footprint (85 to 95 percent) will be caused not by the use of the device, but rather by its production. That includes, in addition to the manufacturing energy, the energy for material mining for gold and the so-called rare-earth elements like yttrium, lanthanium and several others that today are almost exclusively available only from China.

Another guilty participant in this excessive carbon footprint are the phone plans that encourage users to get a new smartphone every two years. That accelerates the rate at which older models become obsolete and leads to an extraordinary and unnecessary amount of waste.

These findings pertain to the device side.

Every Text, Download, Email Uses Server Energy

On the infrastructure side, we predict the combined footprint of data centers and communications networks will grow from 215 megatons of C02 equivalent a year (Mt-CO2e/yr) in 2007 to 764 MtCO2-e/yr by 2020, with data centers accounting for about two thirds of the total contribution.

For comparison purposes, the entire carbon footprint of Canada was about 730 MtCO2-e in 2016 and is expected to decrease by 2020.

The growth in smartphones and data centers aren't unrelated.

Indeed, it's the dizzying growth in mobile communications that's largely driving the pace for data centers. For every text message, video download, photo exchange, email or chat, there's a 24/7 power-hungry server in some data centre that's making it happen.

It's the energy consumption that we don't see.

Software Companies Spur Growth

Finally, and perhaps the most ironic aspect of all this, is that it's software that is driving the overall growth in ICT as a whole, devices and infrastructure included.

Software companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo boast some of the largest data centers in the world. The rise in dominance of the mobile operating systems, namely Apple's iOS and Google's Android, along with the millions of mobile applications that are built on top of those platforms, has spawned the mobile communication age.

The incredible—as well as unsustainable—growth in the emission footprint of all this hardware is there for only one purpose: To support and serve the software universe.

In other words, while it's the hardware that does all the dirty work, it's the software that's calling all the shots.

The way out?

At the societal level, we must demand that all data centers run exclusively on renewable energy.

At the individual level: Hold on to your smartphone for as long as you can, and when you do upgrade, make sure you recycle your old one. Sadly, only 1 percent of smartphones are being recycled today.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pexels

By Brian J. Love and Julie Rieland

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the U.S. recycling industry. Waste sources, quantities and destinations are all in flux, and shutdowns have devastated an industry that was already struggling.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Unhealthy foods play a primary role in many people gaining weight and developing chronic health conditions, more now than ever before.

Read More Show Less
A man pushes his mother in a wheelchair down Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami on May 19, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.

Read More Show Less
To better understand how people influence the overall health of dolphins, Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute is developing a drone to collect samples from the spray that comes from their blowholes. Ken Y. / CC by 2.0

By Jason Bruck

Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.

Read More Show Less

Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus

On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.

Read More Show Less
Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks. jacqueline / CC by 2.0

By Kelli McGrane

Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.

Read More Show Less

Trending


"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images

Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.

Read More Show Less