Nav: Home

Study shows smartphones and data centres harm the environment

March 01, 2018

Data centres and smartphones will be the most damaging information and communications technologies to the environment by 2040, according to new research from W Booth School's Lotfi Belkhir.

At the end of winter term in 2014, Lotfi Belkhir was approached by a student taking his Total Sustainability and Management course who asked, "What does software sustainability mean?"

The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Associate Professor at the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology didn't have an answer.

Belkhir teaches students to think creatively about sustainability tools that can be applied to their entrepreneurial ventures. But his tools, at the time, mainly applied to hardware startups, not software.

The student's question sparked Belkhir's latest research on the global emissions footprint of information and communications technology (ICT).

Belkhir, along with Ahmed Elmeligi, a recent W Booth grad and co-founder of the startup, HiNT (Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology), 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. Their findings were recently published in the 2018 Journal of Cleaner Production.

Not only did they discover that software is driving the consumption of 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," Belkhir explains. "Today it sits at about 1.5%. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14% for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide."

"For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there's a data centre making this happen. 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."

Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment are smartphones. While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85% of their emissions impact comes from production.

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.

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. We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops."

Belkir has made policy recommendations based on his findings.

"Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit. Also, it's not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones."

With his latest research, Belkhir hopes to help students in his Total Sustainability and Management course expand their worldview.

"When they start the course, many students don't know what sustainability means. When the course ends their worldview has changed and they realize what they want to do and why they want to do it."
-end-


McMaster University

Related Renewable Energy Articles:

Could water solve the renewable energy storage challenge?
Seasonally pumped hydropower storage could provide an affordable way to store renewable energy over the long-term, filling a much needed gap to support the transition to renewable energy, according to a new study from IIASA scientists.
Switching to renewable energy could save thousands of lives in Africa
New research from Harvard University and the University of Leicester finds that if Africa chooses a future powered by fossil fuels, nearly 50,000 people could die prematurely each year from fossil fuel emissions by 2030, mostly in South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi.
Scientists take strides towards entirely renewable energy
Researchers have made a major discovery that will make it immeasurably easier for people (or super-computers) to search for an elusive 'green bullet' catalyst that could ultimately provide entirely renewable energy.
Where to install renewable energy in US to achieve greatest benefits
A new Harvard study shows that to achieve the biggest improvements in public health and the greatest benefits from renewable energy, wind turbines should be installed in the Upper Midwest and solar power should be installed in the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Croissant making inspires renewable energy solution
The art of croissant making has inspired researchers from Queen Mary University of London to find a solution to a sustainable energy problem.
Are we underestimating the benefits of investing in renewable energy?
Scientists have estimated the emissions intensity of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants from a major electricity distributor and highlighted key consequences - essential information for policymakers shaping decisions to reduce electricity system emissions.
Lighting the path to renewable energy
Professor Mahesh Bandi of Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has co-developed a novel, standardized way of quantifying and comparing these variations in solar power.
How much energy storage costs must fall to reach renewable energy's full potential
The cost of energy storage will be critical in determining how much renewable energy can contribute to the decarbonization of electricity.
Renewable and nonrenewable energy in Myanmar's economic growth
An international group of scientists including a researcher from Ural Federal University developed a mathematical model that describes the influence of regenerative and non-regenerative energy sources on the economic growth of Myanmar.
Shifts to renewable energy can drive up energy poverty, PSU study finds
Efforts to shift away from fossil fuels and replace oil and coal with renewable energy sources can help reduce carbon emissions but do so at the expense of increased inequality, according to a new Portland State University study
More Renewable Energy News and Renewable Energy Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Uncharted
There's so much we've yet to explore–from outer space to the deep ocean to our own brains. This hour, Manoush goes on a journey through those uncharted places, led by TED Science Curator David Biello.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#556 The Power of Friendship
It's 2020 and times are tough. Maybe some of us are learning about social distancing the hard way. Maybe we just are all a little anxious. No matter what, we could probably use a friend. But what is a friend, exactly? And why do we need them so much? This week host Bethany Brookshire speaks with Lydia Denworth, author of the new book "Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life's Fundamental Bond". This episode is hosted by Bethany Brookshire, science writer from Science News.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 1: Numbers
In a recent Radiolab group huddle, with coronavirus unraveling around us, the team found themselves grappling with all the numbers connected to COVID-19. Our new found 6 foot bubbles of personal space. Three percent mortality rate (or 1, or 2, or 4). 7,000 cases (now, much much more). So in the wake of that meeting, we reflect on the onslaught of numbers - what they reveal, and what they hide.  Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.