#Use less · environment · Technology

Sleek smartphones’ fat CO2 footprint, too hot for maintaining planet’s health

As the last millennium ebbed, I was firmly ensconced as a true believer in the environmental promise of the digital age.

I pressed client corporations to reduce face-to-face meetings and go head-long into video-conferencing. I worked to network hospitals with each other and universities to expedite the flow of medical information and medical images. I started an online training company to help thousands of corporations reduce polluting car, train and plane rides.

Back then, I believed I was helping to create a better world by reducing CO2 emissions while making great money at the same time.

What I didn’t consider was what humans would make of this new-found power to touch the world and the obvious response of corporations.

We have an insatiable appetite to reach out to each other, access instant learning via YouTube, and get Hollywood entertainment via a single smartphone that possesses several thousand times the computing power that NASA’s mission control used to guide Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins safely from the Earth to the moon and back. 

All of this means we spend infinitely more time virtually travelling, gaming, communicating, and being entertained than ever before, not just on smartphones but every device from tablets to giant screen TVs. Apple, Samsung, Huawei and their like are only too happy to upgrade their hardware every year to meet our demand for ever clearer video, sound, and faster games and apps.

We know too well that all the extra digital traffic and the hardware at our end and elsewhere to support it comes at a cost that we’re reminded of every month when our bill arrives. The cost that remains hidden is the huge impact that the ownership and the use of a smartphone has on the environment.

It’s no longer hidden now that an article in the Journal of Cleaner Production has quantified the rise in pollution from ICT (information and computer technologies), predicting a rise from about one per cent of the total global footprint in 2007 to 3.5 per cent by 2020 with an anticipated jump to 14 per cent by 2040. 

The carbon footprint of smartphones

is heading toward 125 megatons a year.

The study’s most surprising finding was that smartphones are the worst polluter in the ICT category. Smartphones are expected to increase their share of total ICT pollution from four per cent in 2010 to 11 per cent by 2020. That’s far more than the contributions from computers or TVs or any other individual product.

In actual pollutants, emissions brought on by smartphones will rise from 17 to 125 megatons of CO2 per year, a 730 per cent growth.

Most of the CO2 isn’t being coughed up by our use of the smartphones but our constant updating to the latest model as encouraged by manufacturers and mobile phone service companies. Manufacturing including the mining of rare-earth elements and other expensive materials spew between 85-95 per cent of the total CO2 blamed on the product. 

You can help by hanging on to your current smartphone as long as possible and not cave into cell phone companies pitching the latest and greatest new phone for free or at greatly reduced cost at every contract renewal.

There’s more. Data centres and communication networks have been tossing 215 megatons of CO2 skyward each year since 2007 and will be up to an annual output of 764 megatons by 2020.

Numbers can be confusing so here’s a comparison. Canada’s entire carbon footprint was roughly 730 megatons of CO2 in 2016 and, despite current political wavering in some provinces, is expected to be less by 2020.

That’s more than a lot of hot air and, despite the saying, talk obviously isn’t cheap.

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