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Smartphones are warming the planet far more than you think

Greenhouse gas emissions from computers, phones, and data centers could grow from about 1 percent of global emissions in 2007 to over 14 percent in 2040. The carbon footprint of smartphones will exceed that of desktop computers, laptops, and displays.
April 5, 2018

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Cars, factories, and even cows quickly get blame for contributing to climate change. But your smartphone is a fast-growing offender, a new study suggests.

Greenhouse gas emissions of the Information and Communications Industry (ICT)—which includes computers and phones but also infrastructure like data centers—could grow from about 1 percent of global emissions in 2007 to over 14 percent in 2040, researchers at McMaster University in Canada report in the Journal of Cleaner Production. That’s more than half the current carbon footprint of the entire transportation sector.

Among devices, smartphones will be worse for the environment. By 2020, their carbon footprint will exceed that of desktop computers, laptops, and displays, the study shows.

Greenhouse gas emissions of ICT often fly under the radar. If anything, the industry is “often highly praised for enabling efficiencies that help reduce other industry sectors’ footprint,” Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi write. Online shopping, for example, could cut transport emissions.

To gauge ICT emissions, the duo analyzed the energy it takes to produce and operate consumer devices, as well as the energy it takes to run telecom infrastructure. They found that data centers and telecom networks are energy hogs. Operating them results in about two-thirds of ICT emissions, growing from 215 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2007 to 764 megatons in 2020.

Meanwhile, a smartphone’s energy cost comes from production. Making a phone accounts for 85–95 percent of its annual carbon footprint because manufacturing its electronics and mining the metals that go into them is energy-intensive.

The analysis showed that smartphone emissions will go up from 17 to 125 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent between 2010 and 2020. That’s an increase from 4 percent to 11 percent of total ICT emissions. This footprint is driven by the pithy two years that a smartphone is used on average. Sadly, less than 1 percent of smartphones get recycled, this and other studies have found.

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So what can be done? For one, the researchers say, government policies and tax incentives should spur the use of renewable energy for operating data centers and manufacturing consumer devices. At the consumer level, we should hold on to our phones as long as possible, and recycle old phones when upgrading to a new one.

Source: Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi. Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production. 2018

GIF by Anthony Antonellis

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