Data centres and smartphones will be the most damaging information and communications technologies to the environment by 2040, a study has found.
Researchers from the McMaster University in Canada studied the carbon footprint of consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, desktops as well as data centres and communication networks as early as 2005. According to Lotfi Belkhir from W Booth School, not only did they discover that software is driving the consumption of information and communications technology (ICT), they also found that ICT has a greater impact on emissions than we thought and most emissions come from production and operation.
“We found that the ICT industry as a whole was growing but it was incremental,” said Belkhir. “Today it sits at about 1.5 per cent. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14 per cent for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide,” he added.
Belkhir who is also an Associate professor at McMaster further added, “For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there’s a data centre making this happen,” he said. “Telecommunications networks and data centres consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see,” he observed.
The study suggests that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment will be smartphones. While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85 per cent of their emissions impact comes from production, however a smartphone’s chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost, the study found.
Smartphones also have a short life which drives further production of new models and an extraordinary amount of waste. “Anyone can acquire a smartphone, and telecommunications companies make it easy for people to acquire a new one every two years,” Belkhir said. “We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops,” he noted.
The study was conducted by Belkhir, along with Ahmed Elmeligi, a recent W Booth grad and co-founder of the startup, HiNT (Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology). Their findings were published in the 2018 Journal of Cleaner Production.