Your smartphone may not seem like a major contributor to carbon emissions and climate change, but a new study shows that smartphone production and data centers will have the biggest environmental impact of all information and communication technology by 2040.
The study, led by Lotfi Belkhir, an Entrepreneurship and Innovation Associate Professor at the W Booth School of Engineering at McMaster University, was in response to a question asked by a student about the sustainability of software.
Belkhir, with the help of fellow researcher Ahmed Elmeligi, set out to examine the carbon footprint of small electronic devices like smartphones and laptops as well as the data centers that work behind the scenes.
The results, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, show that information and communications technology (ICT) will have an increasing environmental impact, particularly with the production of smartphones.
“We found that the ICT industry as a whole was growing, but it was incremental,” said Belkhir. “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.”
The materials needed to create a smartphone’s chip and motherboard are costly to mine, and 85 percent of smartphone emissions come from the production alone.
On top of this, smartphones are easy to buy and phone companies are constantly releasing new models with more attractive features, which means smartphones create a good deal of waste.
“Anyone can acquire a smartphone, and telecommunications companies make it easy for people to acquire a new one every two years,” said Belkhir. “We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops.”
In order to reduce future emissions from smartphones and other information communications technologies, Belkhir notes that data centers need to be powered by renewable energy rather than coal or fossil fuels.
The study also points out the detrimental environmental impact that most smartphone manufacturers have when encouraging consumers to upgrade to a new phone every few years.
“Communication and data centers have to go under renewable energy now,” said Belkhir. “The good news is Google, and Facebook data centers are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centers follow suit. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones.”