Smartphones Are Destroying Earth Faster Than We Thought

  • According to the ICT global emission report, the carbon emission from smartphones has tripled in last 10 years.
  • iPhone 6s generated 57 percent more carbon dioxide than iPhone 4s.
  • By 2020, smartphones alone will be responsible for 45 percent of total ICT emission.

Over the last couple of decades, ICT (information and communication technology) devices and services have grown at an enormous rate. In fact, they have transformed the way we communicate, work, watch movies, and play games.

While the human population has doubled in the last 5 decades, the use of electronic equipment has nearly increased to 6 times. According to statista report, the number of smartphone users is expected to grow over 2.5 billion in 2019. The global smartphone penetration rate is increasing as well. Moreover, the number of mobile phone users will cross 5 billion mark by 2019, and 6 billion by 2020.

In March 2018, researchers at McMaster University published ICT global emission report showing impact of carbon produced by ICT industry, including smartphones, desktops, laptops, monitors and servers. And the news is even worse than what we thought.

The ICT Carbon Emission Has Tripled In Last 10 years

Although we’re shifting from bulkier PCs to lighter phones, the overall impact of technology is only getting worse. Considering the darker side of the ICT industry, the energy consumption of these devices is exponentially increasing.

Today, production of this much-required energy to build and operate all ICT equipment is remarkably contributing towards more carbon dioxide in our atmosphere – a major factor of Green House Gas.

Back in 2007, the energy consumption of PCs, networking instruments, data centers and smartphones, accounted for nearly 1 percent of the carbon footprint. And now, this figure has been tripled. If everything goes at the same rate, it will cross the 14 percent mark by 2040. That’s more than half of the carbon impact of the whole transportation (27%) or electricity generation (29%) industry.

Source: ScienceDirect | doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239

New Smartphones Create More Carbon Dioxide

Image credit: consumerreports.org

Usually smartphones have two to three years average life cycle, they have more or less disposable nature. The main problem is with new smartphones – developing a new one or mining unique material that fit inside smartphones represents about 90 percent of the phone’s total carbon dioxide emission for 2 years.

Thus, purchasing a new smartphone takes as much energy as operating and recharging a mobile for a whole decade.

Since people are nowadays buying mobiles less frequently, manufacturers are trying to make up for less profits by selling more stylish smartphones with larger screen size. These bigger screens have significantly more carbon footprint than their predecessor.

Apple Inc. has made it public that building an iPhone 7+ generates about 10 percent more carbon dioxide than iPhone 6s. However, producing an iPhone 7 makes nearly 10 percent less carbon dioxide than 6s model.

According to a study done in 2015, iPhone 6s generated 57 percent more carbon dioxide than model 4s. Even though Apple and other major tech companies run recycling programs, less than 1 percent of devices were recycled at that time. 

Servers and Data Centers: The Biggest Culprit

Relative contribution of Each ICT category

Apart from smartphones, servers and data centers play a crucial role in polluting our planet. It’s expected that, by 2020, they will be responsible for 45 percent of total ICT emission.

This is because every time you tweet something, or refresh Facebook timeline, or do a Google search, it requires a hardware to do background computation in the cloud. And the situation could become even worse if cryptocurrencies’ popularity increases in future.

Researchers point out that smartphones are one of the reasons of extensive cloud-usage, since almost all popular apps use enormous server resources. Simply put, more smartphones need more servers.

Encouraging Steps

One thing is absolutely clear – we are not going to stop purchasing or using mobile phones. But at least we can stop buying phones more frequently.

Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are now investing in solar energies. In fact, Apple and Facebook severs are currently running on 100 percent clean and renewable energy.

Read: 15 Facts About Global Warming That Show Climate Change Is Real

As of now, it’s quite important to explore more innovative solution that can meet our ever increasing demand in the ICT industry without undermining reduction targets for carbon dioxide emissions.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is a professional science and technology journalist and a big fan of AI, machines, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out about his latest projects, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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