Technology Exposed

Image from Zoopah
Image by Zoopah

How much energy do our technologies consume? Researchers from McMaster University answer this question in their study on the trends of global emissions and lifespan of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) devices and services.  They based their study on smart phones, tablets, displays, notebooks, desktops, and data centers.  Based on their current results, ICT infrastructures like data centers and communication networks are the largest contributor to energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

Data centers emit 1314 to 3743 kg CO2-e/year (carbon dioxide equivalent) while they are in use. This is equivalent to 33% of the global greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) footprint by ICT devices in 2010. The average life span of data centers are ten years, and the servers attached to the centers last three to five years. Since the data centers are supporting the internet and telecommunication system, they are in constant use, resulting in higher energy consumption. In comparison, communication networks that encompass telecom operator networks, office networks, and customer premises access contribute to 28% of the global footprint in 2010. Combined, the information of energy consumption of data centers from 2007-2012 will increase by 12% in 2020.

Following data centers and communication networks of ICT greenhouse gas footprints, smart phones will contribute to 11% of energy in 2020, compared to 4% in 2010. Smart phones, specifically Apple IPhones in the study, have an average lifespan of 1.8 to 2 years. Based on the researchers’ model on absolute terms of GHGE footprints, it predicted a 730% increase in GHGE from 2010 to 2020. In 2020, smart phones will release 125 MT CO2-e into the environment. The increase of emissions is due to the short life span of these devices. Therefore, more phones need to be produced due to their ephemeral life span. Planned obsolesce is intentional in technological design, which contributes to a profitable business model for the phone manufactures and telecom industry.

In contrast to data centers, communication networks, and smart phones, the footprints of displays, notebooks, and desktops will decrease in 2020 due the transition to high phone usage.  Below, Figure 1 displays the change of GHGE by ICT category.

comparing global energy consumption in 2010 and 2020.
Figure 1: Data from Belhir and Elmeligi on the relative contribution of each Information Communication Technology categories in 2010 and 2020

Why do these numbers matter? Based on the Paris Agreement, 196 nations agreed to limit global warming below 2°C.  If the production of ICT devices and services continue as is, we will fall short on this commitment. In 2007, the global greenhouse gas emissions were at 1-1.6%; this number could exceed 14% worldwide by 2040 if we continue our current practices. More importantly, these would the global initiative to maintain the global temperature.

paris climate change
Image from WIRED

So, what now?  The researchers suggest that we should instill sustainable practices in the production and operations of data centers and communications through the use of renewable energies. Also, it will be important to raise awareness on global energy consumption from technology. This research provides incite how the environmental impacts of our technology. To meet our global initiative, it will be crucial to adapt a new method.

Source: Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi. Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018; 177: 448 DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239

2 Replies to “Technology Exposed”

  1. I think this is symptomatic of a larger misconception, where people expect we can invent ourselves into greener and more sustainable technology, when in fact it would be far easier and more effective to simply reduce the number of devices we consume.

  2. The massive increase in the carbon footprint statistics is frankly very unnerving. I like the fact that you brought up the Paris Agreement to connect the data to make a solid point. It is high time but governments and individuals realized the importance of mitigating climate change and actually acted upon it!

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