Mobile phones are killing the planet and they’re only getting worse

The carbon footprint of our phones is only growing with each successive new release and the resources to make them are running out fast.

Nov 19, 2019 |
3 min read

Even though computer use is moving away from the giant power-hungry desktop and tower devices of yesteryear into slimline and power-dieting handheld devices, the way we are using our devices is beginning to make an ever greater impact on world carbon production.

With more and more data being stored in the cloud, and every like, message, Instagram photo, and unthought out reaction to…er…Instagram photos require more massive banks of energy-hungry servers ever to store all this data.

Computing and information technology accounted for just 1% of carbon emissions even as recently as 2007, but it is already at three times that and looks set to soar to 14% by 2040 unless internet companies really start to take green energy sourcing in hand.

Out of all these emissions, a casual observer might assume the humble smartphone (ignoring its impact on could storage needs) would have minimal impact on carbon emissions. But you’d be wrong.

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Because the very creation of each and every phone carries a carbon footprint that adds up to as much as 95% of the emissions its usage would count for in a two year period (roughly 22kg of CO2 per phone). Since most mobile phone users have traditionally updated their phones to a new model every two years, this means phones are having double the impact on the environment than they otherwise should.

The fortunate fact that people are updating their phones less and less often (since they already do everything we want) has led companies to make their new products ever bigger, fancier, and with an ever heavier carbon footprint. Larger screens have a noticeably larger carbon footprint than smaller models (even as the carbon footprint of handsets is broadly falling).

Phone companies are desperate to look green and have schemes in place to show their credentials and good intentions, such as recycling programs. In reality, though, only 1% of smartphones are actually recycled.

This is particularly worrying since some of the rare elements in them may run out within the course of this century. Such shortages could have serious geopolitical implications, and already the need to extract lithium used in their batteries has been suggested as one of the reasons for the ousting of Evo Morales from power in Bolivia.

These wider issues aside, when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint of mobile phones, the answer is relatively simple: just use our phones for longer before we replace them. It really is as easy as that. In fact, if consumers just used their phones for a third longer, that extension to their life could save as much carbon as the annual emissions of the Republic of Ireland.

Greenpeace has even brought out their own handy guide to the phones and phone providers with the lowest carbon footprint.

However, as mentioned, when it comes to carbon emissions, the real emerging baddies are data servers, and our social media-obsessed age is requiring ever more of data centers for our growing need for storage, currently using 3% of the world’s electricity and producing 2% of global carbon emissions but set to match the emissions of the entire USA by 2040.

But fear not, Google and Facebook have pledged to source the power for their vast data centers from 100% renewables, and Apple is already way ahead of them, with its data servers already zero carbon for energy production.

However, even these might internet behemoths may be gnats in the face of the coming data server needs of the ‘internet of things.’ The IoT has been looming on the horizon for some time now and is already pretty much upon us, with 15 billion active gadgets already in the world, but estimates suggest its power demands will expand exponentially with internet-enabled devices. But for all its need for more servers, the efficiencies created by the IoT could actually generate a net save in carbon in the long run.

So maybe the future is still mobile. But maybe do a bit more recycling, reusing and not so much social media clicking, and the planet will even thank you for your care.

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