Last week marked the official start of COP28, the United Nations Climate change conference. Held every year, COP is annual event in which delegates from governments around the world aim to work together to make progress in dealing with climate change.
This year includes the first Global Stocktake (GST), an assessment of progress since the Paris Agreement was adopted by UN member states in 2015. Each country is obligated to define and undertake its own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) in response to climate change.
The goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius — we’re currently at 1.2 degrees Celcius. With progress painfully slow and government policies not keeping pace, it’s industries must take their own steps to reduce their environmental impact in order for us all to avoid the worst consequences of global warming — that includes those of us working in technology.
Environmental impact of technology
GHG emissions in tech
Estimates suggest that ICT is responsible for 1.8–2.8% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, equating to 1.0–1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GTCO2e) — as much as the entire aviation industry.
Globally, data centres use the same amount of electricity as the UK, and by 2030 their energy consumption is expected to reach 4% of global electricity demand.
Part of the increase in GHG emissions in tech are due to:
- Use of rare earth metals
- Increased e-waste
- Rapid technological advances
- Increased usage
Use of rare earth metals
Rare earth metals are used in the production of everything from computers and magnets, to headphones and night vision goggles. Transitioning our energy supply to renewable energy also requires the mining of rare earth metals for usage in electric cars, battery storage, wind turbines and more.
Waste water is a byproduct of the mining process, and irresponsible disposal of this water is leading to devastating consequences when it leaches into oceans and rivers, contaminating freshwater supplies. Rare earth metal mining also produces high levels of dust, fumes and radioactive residue.
Approximately half of the world’s electronics rely on rare earth metals mined in the Bayan Obo mine in Inner Mongolia, China. Bayan Obo is also one of the most polluted areas of the world:
In 2010, officials in the nearby city of Baotou noted that radioactive, arsenic- and fluorine-containing mine waste, or tailings, was being dumped on farmland and into local water supplies, as well as into the nearby Yellow River. The air was polluted by fumes and toxic dust that reduced visibility. Residents complained of nausea, dizziness, migraines and arthritis. Some had skin lesions and discolored teeth, signs of prolonged exposure to arsenic; others exhibited signs of brittle bones, indications of skeletal fluorosis, Klinger says.
Lack of responsible recycling and disposal systems is leading to large amounts of hazardous waste being dumped in low-income countries, and results in larger amounts of precious metals
Digital obsolescence is also increasing our production of e-waste, with:
- Mechanical failure or wear-and-tear that reduces functionality or ceases to function altogether
- Deliberate design changes to applications that intentionally makes it incompatible with earlier editions of other software or hardware
- New applications that aren’t designed or tested for older hardware or software versions
With the increasing obsolescence of recent technology, more technology will be disposed of and more technology will need to be designed and built,
Rapid technological advances
New technologies such as blockchain, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) place greater demand on energy supplies, while higher resolution multimedia also demand higher usage of energy.
Research conducted by the University of Massachusetts investigating the training of common large AI models found that:
the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent — nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself)
Meanwhile in 2019, estimates by the University of Cambridge found that:
Bitcoin uses as much energy as the whole of Switzerland
…using around seven gigawatts of electricity, equal to 0.21% of the world’s supply. That is as much power as would be generated by seven Dungeness nuclear power plants at once.
Laptops, monitors, tablets, phones, smart assistants, watches, fitness trackers, headphones, TVs — more people are connected to the internet than ever before, and with the growth in Internet of Things (IoT), more devices are connecting to the internet and increasing demand on raw materials and network connectivity.
The production of content (photos, videos, messages, files) is far outpacing the rate at which we delete content — meaning more hardware needs to be built, and more data centres need to be constructed.
The design of software also affects our behaviour, with unethical design practices such as dark patterns (tricking users into signing up for things they don’t want), and addictive design patterns (keeping users online and using apps for longer than they otherwise would).
Whilst designing for attention has also led to an increase in intensive content production such as videos and complex graphics — autoplaying videos, heavy animations, excessive popups and advertisements.
As we expect to be constantly connected to the internet, and more devices are placing greater demand on networks, the increasing access to fast 5G (significantly more energy-intensive than WiFi) means we are using our devices to connect to the internet with increasing frequency — and increased emissions. The upgrade of infrastructure to 5G has also led to an increase in consumer purchasing of 5G compatible devices — Computer Weekly: Consumers look ahead with caution as connected device usage increases
Analysing environmental impact
There are multiple methods of assessing the environmental impact of products and services:
- A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a way of assessing environmental impacts throughout the lifecycle of a product or process
- An Ecological Rucksack is a calculation of the total weight of natural materials used across the lifecycle of the product, minus actual weight of the product
- Carbon Accounting involves quantifying the GHG emissions produced by an organisation’s activities — both directly (Scope 1) and indirectly (Scopes 2 and 3)
The product lifecycle of a typical digital device (such as phones, computers and servers) includes:
- Extraction of raw materials
- Disposal or recycling
Extraction of raw materials
Smartphones are made up of 42 rare earth metals and metalloids, with up to 86kg of waste material produced in the mining process for the metals and minerals required for a single phone.
For every ton of rare earth produced, the mining process yields 13kg of dust, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, and one ton of radioactive residue.
Avoiding raw material extraction in the first place, by using recycled materials instead can significantly reduce the GHG emissions, and other forms of environmental pollution.
Most of a device’s emissions are generated in the production phase of its lifespan, with embodied carbon accounting for almost two thirds of its total carbon footprint.
For example, 81% of the emissions generated in the lifespan of an iPhone 14 Pro is generated in the Production phase.
Smartphones alone were responsible for the generation of 146 million tonnes of CO2e in 2022.
The environmental impact of device usage depends on the equipment used — a 50” LED television consumes approximately 5 times more than a laptop and 100 times more than a smartphone.
Annual emissions produced by the use of a computer based on measurements taken at the University of Oxford:
- Sample PC kept ‘active’ continuously: 73kg CO2e
- With default power saving features: 37kg CO2e (-49%)
- Shutdown when not in use: 17.6kg CO2e (-76%)
- Turned off at wall when not in use: 14.7kg CO2e (-80%)
Disposal and recycling
Over 50 million tonnes of e-waste is produced every year, yet only 20% of discarded electronics are recycled properly. The majority of e-waste is exported from high-income countries to landfills in low-income countries where millions of women and children work — at risk of exposure to over 1,000 harmful substances including mercury and lead.
With the production phase being so environmentally expensive, and opportunities for responsible recycling of devices limited, one of the most impactful changes you can make is to stop buying new technology as much as possible. Instead, repair or upgrade what you already own, or purchase secondhand or refurbished devices, making sure you recycle your old devices responsibly.
Brands like Fairphone are championing consumers’ right to repair, by designing their phones to be modular and easy for consumers to fit replacement parts themselves. Customers can also map the journey of their phone through the product’s lifecycle.
Framework designs their laptops with modularity and repairability in mind, even offering a laptop that you can build yourself. They use recycled materials but make no claim to be sustainable — acknowledging the impact of the industry as a whole, and providing lifecycle assessments for their products to increase transparency with their customers.
Of the leading cloud hosting providers, Google Cloud is leading the way with its sustainability pledges by committing to hit net-zero emissions by 2030. Intending to run all its infrastructure on renewable energy, replenishing more freshwater than they consume, and achieving zero waste to landfill.
The environmental impact of technology is undeniable. Technology isn’t going anywhere, and it’s the responsibility of industry leaders, business owners, and those of us working in tech to take action to reduce our negative impact on our environment.
As website and software designers and developers, we’re committed to taking action to cut our footprint and build a web that works for all — people and planet.
Whether you want to share notes, or want to collaborate to reduce the environmental cost of your digital products and services, feel free to get in touch.
This is part of an ongoing series on the environmental impact of technology and the steps we can take as individuals, business owners, designers and developers to reduce our emissions, and build a more sustainable future.
A process that involves quantifying the GHG emissions produced by an organisation’s activities — both directly (Scope 1) and indirectly (Scopes 2 and 3).
Carbon Dioxide equivalent (CO2e)
A unit of measurement representing how all greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, it takes into account the different Global Warming Potential (GWP) of each gas.
Carbon Dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, others include Methane (CH4), Nitrous Oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Usually represented as gCO2e (grams of Carbon Dioxide equivalent), tCO2e, MTCO2e (metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent). As Methane has a higher GWP than CO2, 1 MT of Methane gas is approximately equal to to 25 MTCO2e.
Conference of the Parties (COP)
The supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty to tackle climate change.
They meet annually at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (this year is COP28) to discuss progress on actions on climate change, and work on policies to push for further action.
The current implementation of the UNFCCC is the Paris Agreement, which superceded the Kyoto Protocol in 2016.
Designing products with an artificially limited lifespan, so that it becomes obsolete as either functionality reduces or ceases.
The calculation of the total weight of natural materials used across the lifecycle of the product, minus actual weight of the product
Carbon generated in order to produce a product up until the delivery of the product.
Greenhouse Gases (GHG)
Gases in the atmosphere that raise the temperature of the earth, absorbing the radiation that the planet emits, creating a greenhouse effect.
Global Warming Potential (GWP)
A measurement that allows us to compare how different gases contribute to global warming, with the greater the number, the greater its GWP, and the more it will warm the earth over a specified period of time. CO2 is used as the base of the calculation, and so has a GWP of 1, over 100 years.
For example, based on a 100 year time frame, Methane has a GWP of 25 and Nitrous Oxide has a GWP of 298, with Chlorofluorocarbons having a significantly higher GWP.
To calculate the CO2e of a gas, you would multiply its mass by its GWP.
Lifecycle Assessment (LCA)
A way of assessing environmental impacts throughout the lifecycle of a product or process.
Right to Repair
The idea that if you own a device, you should be able to repair it yourself, or take it to a repairer of your choice.
- Show Your Stripes
- What is CO2e?
- The Carbon Cost of an Email | Carbon Literacy
- Amazon, Google, Microsoft: Here’s Who Has the Greenest Cloud
- Soaring e-waste affects the health of millions of children, WHO warns
- Bayan Obo world biggest rare earths mine | Ej Atlas
- How rare earth elements make modern technology possible | Science News
- AI’s Carbon Footprint
- Making an image with generative AI uses as much energy as charging your phone
- What is Carbon Accounting? | IBM
- What’s the Carbon Footprint of All Our Electronics?
- This is how climate change could impact the global economy | World Economic Forum
Who wrote this?
- Frontend developer
- Accessibility advocate
- Always reading