Trends in ICT global emissions footprint

Significance 

The Mobile Communications Age is heating up our planet much faster than we ever thought.” says Dr. Lotfi Belkhir

When it comes to addressing the urgency of climate change, global warming and pollution in general, our fingers are usually pointed at carbon emissions from heavy industries like manufacturing, mining, transportation, and petroleum. Little do we make of the impact of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

If anything, we tend to view our ICT devices, be they smartphones, computers, or tablets as a possible redeemer in the reduction of the carbon emission menace, being such as the replacement of fuel-intensive travel and commuting with green and efficient video conferencing capabilities for example. The study discussed here, however, , suggests otherwise.

A group of researchers in Canada at McMaster University, led by Professor Belkhir has shown the ICT sector as a significant carbon emitter with the possibility of overtaking the major other contributors if not appropriately controlled. Their important study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

According to Belkhir & Elmeligi, the use of ICT will not reduce the global carbon footprint due to its rapid incremental demand and consumption. On the contrary, the duo estimates that by the year 2040 the relative contribution of the ICT sector to the global carbon footprint will rise from about 1.5% in 2007 to as high as 14% by 2040, representing more than 50% of the total transportation sector footprint. The study, which comprises the ICT devices, such as computers, displays, tablets and smartphones, and the supporting infrastructure such as data centers and communication networks, includes not only the energy consumption, but also the production energy of that ICT equipment, including the mining of the necessary raw materials such as gold and rare-earth elements.

One novel and surprising element of the study was the disproportionate contribution of smartphones to the total ICT footprint. The authors found that by 2020, the relative contribution of smartphones alone will surpass that of desktop computers, laptops and even displays.

Another key finding of the study was the relative contribution of data centers which are expected to contribute as much as 45% of the total ICT footprint by 2020. This growth is fueled by the sustained exponential growth in data traffic worldwide, and which is primarily driven by mobile communications, i.e. smartphones again.

The authors have also suggested mitigation schemes for reduction of ICT footprint as critical to achieving the realization of the bigger goal, highlighted in the Paris Agreement. These include incentivizing data centers to run exclusively on renewable energy, and advising cell phone makers to develop a greener supply chain, in addition to encouraging a longer use life of their devices sources. Even software companies and app makers should work to make their products more energy efficient to prolong phone battery life. Other effective policy changes include variable carbon taxes, and using alternative business models for smartphones. Some of these measures can be acted and implemented at both global and country levels, thereby meeting the various countries reduction targets.

 

Reference

Belkhir, L., & Elmeligi, A. (2018). Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 177, 448-463.

 

Go To Journal of Cleaner Production

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