How Smartphones Are Heating Up the Planet
By Lotfi Belkhir
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.
- Redwoods are the world's tallest trees.
- Now scientists have discovered they are even bigger than we thought.
- Using laser technology they map the 80-meter giants.
- Trees are a key plank in the fight against climate change.
They are among the largest trees in the world, descendants of forests where dinosaurs roamed.
Pixabay / Simi Luft<p><span>Until recently, measuring these trees meant scaling their 80 meter high trunks with a tape measure. Now, a team of scientists from University College London and the University of Maryland uses advanced laser scanning, to create 3D maps and calculate the total mass.</span></p><p>The results are striking: suggesting the trees <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">may be as much as 30% larger than earlier measurements suggested.</a> Part of that could be due to the additional trunks the Redwoods can grow as they age, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a process known as reiteration</a>.</p>
New 3D measurements of large redwood trees for biomass and structure. Nature / UCL<p>Measuring the trees more accurately is important because carbon capture will probably play a key role in the battle against climate change. Forest <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/09/carbon-sequestration-natural-forest-regrowth" target="_blank">growth could absorb billions of tons</a> of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.</p><p>"The importance of big trees is widely-recognised in terms of carbon storage, demographics and impact on their surrounding ecosystems," the authors wrote<a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank"> in the journal Nature</a>. "Unfortunately the importance of big trees is in direct proportion to the difficulty of measuring them."</p><p>Redwoods are so long lived because of their ability to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cope with climate change, resist disease and even survive fire damage</a>, the scientists say. Almost a fifth of their volume may be bark, which helps protect them.</p>
Carbon Capture Champions<p><span>Earlier research by scientists at Humboldt University and the University of Washington found that </span><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112716302584" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Redwood forests store almost 2,600 tonnes of carbon per hectare</a><span>, their bark alone containing more carbon than any other neighboring species.</span></p><p>While the importance of trees in fighting climate change is widely accepted, not all species enjoy the same protection as California's coastal Redwoods. In 2019 the world lost the equivalent of <a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation-and-forest-degradation" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30 soccer fields of forest cover every minute</a>, due to agricultural expansion, logging and fires, according to The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).</p>
Pixabay<p>Although <a href="https://c402277.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/publications/1420/files/original/Deforestation_fronts_-_drivers_and_responses_in_a_changing_world_-_full_report_%281%29.pdf?1610810475" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the rate of loss is reported to have slowed in recent years</a>, reforesting the world to help stem climate change is a massive task.</p><p><span>That's why the World Economic Forum launched the Trillion Trees Challenge (</span><a href="https://www.1t.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1t.org</a><span>) and is engaging organizations and individuals across the globe through its </span><a href="https://uplink.weforum.org/uplink/s/uplink-issue/a002o00000vOf09AAC/trillion-trees" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Uplink innovation crowdsourcing platform</a><span> to support the project.</span></p><p>That's backed up by research led by ETH Zurich/Crowther Lab showing there's potential to restore tree coverage across 2.2 billion acres of degraded land.</p><p>"Forests are critical to the health of the planet," according to <a href="https://www.1t.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1t.org</a>. "They sequester carbon, regulate global temperatures and freshwater flows, recharge groundwater, anchor fertile soil and act as flood barriers."</p><p><em data-redactor-tag="em" data-verified="redactor">Reposted with permission from the </em><span><em data-redactor-tag="em" data-verified="redactor"><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/03/redwoods-store-more-co2-and-are-more-enormous-than-we-thought/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em></span></p>
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