Smartphones are having an increasingly grave impact on carbon emissions, according to a study from researchers at McMaster University. They examined the carbon footprint of the Information and Communication Industry (ICT) from 2010 to 2020, and found that the prevalence of smartphones has greatly exacerbated the impact of technology on the planet.
The industry made up just one percent of the world’s carbon footprint in 2007, but has already tripled, and is projected to make up over 14 percent by 2040 – about half of the world’s transportation emissions, according to Fast Company.
Smartphones are especially carbon-intensive. About 90 percent of the carbon impact of smartphones comes from the process of building new phones, particularly from mining the necessary minerals.
As a result, buying a new phone uses as much energy as using and recharging one over an entire decade. With an average lifespan of just two years, this adds up quickly.
As consumers move toward buying phones less frequently, companies have been compensating with larger phones with additional features.
The study’s authors found that large-screened phones have an even larger carbon footprint. Apple has stated that the iPhone 7 Plus creates about 10 percent more carbon emissions than the iPhone 6s. Another study showed that the iPhone 6s creates 57 percent more emissions than the iPhone 4s.
And to make matters worse, the researchers estimate that less than one percent of smartphones are being recycled, despite recycling programs run by Apple and other companies.
Holding on to your smartphone for longer, say three years instead of two, is one way to reduce your phone’s carbon impact.
Although the impact of smartphones is increasing rapidly, the biggest ICT carbon impact comes from servers and data centers, at almost half of overall ICT emissions. But smartphones are contributing to this figure too – the researchers note that mobile apps and more phones increase demand for the servers.
According to Lotfi Belkhir, the study’s lead author, the best course of action would involve policies and taxes that encourage running these servers using renewable energy. Apple’s servers already run on renewable energy, and Google and Facebook have pledged to do the same.
But other developments, like the growing internet of things (including a wide variety of connected devices) and the potential growth of cryptocurrency, all threaten to make the situation even worse. In the paper, the authors write:
“Unless the supporting infrastructure moves quickly to 100% renewable power, the emergence of [the internet of things] could potentially dwarf the contribution of all the other traditional computing devices, and dramatically increase the overall global emissions well beyond the projections of this study.”