Quantcast

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

Waterloo Bridge during the Extinction Rebellion protest in London. Martin Hearn / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Money talks. And today it had something to say about the impending global climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Sam Cooper

By Sam Cooper

Thomas Edison once said, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!"

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Zero Waste Kitchen Essentials

Simple swaps that cut down on kitchen trash.

Sponsored

By Kayla Robbins

Along with the bathroom, the kitchen is one of the most daunting areas to try and make zero waste.

Read More Show Less
A NOAA research vessel at a Taylor Energy production site in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2018. NOAA

The federal government is looking into the details from the longest running oil spill in U.S. history, and it's looking far worse than the oil rig owner let on, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Damage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from the 2016 occupation. USFWS

By Tara Lohan

When armed militants with a grudge against the federal government seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon back in the winter of 2016, I remember avoiding the news coverage. Part of me wanted to know what was happening, but each report I read — as the occupation stretched from days to weeks and the destruction grew — made me so angry it was hard to keep reading.

Read More Show Less
Computer model projection of temperature anomalies across Europe on June 27. Temperature scale in °C. Tropicaltidbits.com

A searing heat wave has begun to spread across Europe, with Germany, France and Belgium experiencing extreme temperatures that are set to continue in the coming days.

Read More Show Less
Skull morphology of hybrid "narluga" whale. Nature / Mikkel Høegh Post

In the 1980s, a Greenlandic subsistence hunter shot and killed a whale with bizarre features unlike any he had ever seen before. He knew something was unique about it, so he left its abnormally large skull on top of his toolshed where it rested until a visiting professor happened upon it a few years later.

Read More Show Less