Smartphones are not so smart for the environment

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Smartphones are not so smart for the environment

Data centres chew electricity generated by fossil fuels

Senior science reporter

Paperless communication has been hailed as a green solution, but have you ever wondered if your text messages, WhatsApp and e-mails are also damaging the environment?
According to a new study they most certainly are, and by 2040 smartphones (and data centres) will be the most damaging of all information and communication technologies to the environment.
“For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there’s a data centre making this happen. Telecommunications networks and data centres consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see,” according to Lotfi Belkhir, an expert in eco-entrepreneurship at McMaster University in Canada.
Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020 the most damaging devices to the environment are smartphones.“Anyone can acquire a smartphone, and telecommunications companies make it easy for people to acquire a new one every two years. We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops,” said Belkhir.
Here is why they’re so destructive:

While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85% of their emissions impact comes from production;
A smartphone’s chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost; and
Smartphones have a short life which drives further production of new models and an extraordinary amount of waste.

This important study, which could inform how we go forward in the neverending IT revolution, began with a single question asked of a lecturer by one of his students.
Belkhir said that a few years ago he was giving a course on sustainability and management. A student came up to him after class and asked: “What does software sustainability mean?”
As an academic who is constantly making sure innovation is met with thinking around sustainability, he had an eureka moment: his tools, he realised, mainly applied to hardware startups and not software.From this single question came his research topic: What is the global emissions footprint of ICT?
He and fellow researchers then began looking into the carbon footprint of devices such as laptops, tablets, smartphones, and desktops – as well as data centres and communication networks.
Their findings were recently published in the 2018 Journal of Cleaner Production.
They concluded that “software is driving the consumption of ICT” but just as alarmingly, “ICT has a greater impact on emissions than we thought and most emissions come from production and operation”.
“We found that the ICT industry as a whole was growing but it was incremental,” Belkhir explains. “Today it sits at about 1.5%. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14% for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide.”..

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