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

Ryan Hagerty / USFWS

It's become a familiar story with the Trump administration: Scientists write a report that shows the administration's policies will cause environmental damage, then the administration buries the report and fires the scientists.

Read More Show Less
Valerie / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A coalition of some of the largest environmental groups in the country joined forces to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the Trump administration's maneuver to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
beyond foto / Getty Images

By Kimberly Holland

Children who eat a lot of gluten in their earliest years may have an increased risk of developing celiac disease and gluten intolerance, according to a new study published in JAMATrusted Source.

Read More Show Less
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Calling the global climate crisis both the greatest threat facing the U.S. and the greatest opportunity for transformative change, Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled today a comprehensive Green New Deal proposal that would transition the U.S. economy to 100 percent renewable energy and create 20 million well-paying union jobs over a decade.

Read More Show Less
orientalizing / Flickr

The Parties to CITES agreed to list giraffes on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) today at the World Wildlife Conference or CoP18 in Geneva. Such protections will ensure that all giraffe parts trade were legally acquired and not sourced from the poached giraffes trade and will require countries to make non-detriment findings before allowing giraffe exports. The listing will also enable the collection of international trade data for giraffes that might justify greater protections at both CITES and other venues in the future.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

The WHO stressed that more research is needed on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion. luchschen / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The UN's health agency on Thursday said that microplastics contained in drinking water posed a "low" risk at their current levels.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) — in its first report on the potential health risks of microplastic ingestion — also stressed more research was needed to reassure consumers.

Read More Show Less

Brazil's right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is giving President Trump a run for his money in the alternative facts department.

Read More Show Less
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivered his 2019 State of the State address on Jan. 15. Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee / Flickr

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made solving the climate crisis the center of his presidential campaign, is dropping out of the 2020 Democratic primary race.

Read More Show Less