SOURCE: Fast Company

DATE: March 27, 2018

SNIP: A new study from researchers at McMaster University published in the Journal of Cleaner Production analyzed the carbon impact of the whole Information and Communication Industry (ICT) from around 2010-2020, including PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones, and servers. They found remarkably bad news. Even as the world shifts away from giant tower PCs toward tiny, energy-sipping phones, the overall environmental impact of technology is only getting worse. Whereas ICT represented 1% of the carbon footprint in 2007, it’s already about tripled, and is on its way to exceed 14% by 2040. That’s half as large as the carbon impact of the entire transportation industry.

Smartphones are particularly insidious for a few reasons. With a two-year average life cycle, they’re more or less disposable. The problem is that building a new smartphone–and specifically, mining the rare materials inside them–represents 85% to 95% of the device’s total CO2 emissions for two years. That means buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.

[An] independent study concluded that the iPhone 6s created 57% more CO2 than the iPhone 4s. And despite the recycling programs run by Apple and others, “based on our research and other sources, currently less than 1% of smartphones are being recycled,” Lotfi Belkhir, the study’s lead author, tells me.

Smartphones represent a fast-growing segment of ICT, but the overall largest culprit with regards to CO2 emissions belongs to servers and data centers themselves, which will represent 45% of ICT emissions by 2020. That’s because every Google search, every Facebook refresh, and every dumb Tweet we post requires a computer somewhere to calculate it all in the cloud. (The numbers could soon be even worse, depending on how popular cryptocurrencies get.) Here, the smartphone strikes again. The researchers point out that mobile apps actually reinforce our need for these 24/7 servers in a self-perpetuating energy-hogging cycle. More phones require more servers. And with all this wireless information in the cloud, of course we’re going to buy more phones capable of running even better apps.

If this all sounds like bad news, it’s because it absolutely is bad news. To make matters worse, the researchers calculated some of their conclusions conservatively. The future will only get more dire if the internet of things takes off and many more devices are hitting up the cloud for data.

The bottom line is that we need to buy less, and engage less, for the health of this entire planet.