The carbon footprint of computers is higher than we thought. So what can we do?

You probably know that climate change will have a catastrophic impact on the environment, wildlife and millions globally if we don’t significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions.

 

You probably also know that to do this we must urgently halt the burning of fossil fuels – invest in clean energy like solar and wind, replace flights and petrol vehicles with greener forms of transport, and stop overconsumption.

 

But this you may not know…

 

Our use of technology is causing climate change too.

 

That’s right. Everytime we open our PC, charge our smartphone, watch a netflix show or purchase a laptop, we’re contributing to the production of greenhouse gas emissions and causing toxic chemicals to pollute the earth. 

 

Why? For lots of reasons. 

 

Let’s break down the main points…

 

the hidden cost of digital carbon footprints as a person uses their computer to search the internet

Photo by Firmbee.com, via Unsplash

 

Data centres use huge amounts of electricity.

 

When you access services on the Internet, servers (big machines) are required to give you access to online resources. These are located in data centres which can be as large as 40,000 mwarehouses. That’s around the size of 600 UK homes! There are data centres all over the world. They’re responsible for using huge amounts of electricity.

 

Manufacturing computers produces emissions.

 

Tech products require fossil fuels and chemicals to produce – every component having to be sourced, shipped and manufactured. This all creates emissions.

 

Manufacturing facilities expel toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air too – harmful to people and wildlife in close proximity.

 

The industry has a big operational carbon footprint.

 

Every company has a carbon footprint. From social media platforms to mobile phone suppliers – shipping, vehicle emissions, office heating and infrastructure all has a carbon cost.

Fossil fuels are used in the manufacture of electrical goods.

Illustration by Grace Spalding, Buttercup Learning

 

Using tech consumes energy.

 

Unless you’ve got solar panels on your home (well done you!), or you have a green energy supplier like Good Energy, everytime you charge your smartphone or turn on your computer, you’re consuming electricity produced by fossil-fuel burning power stations.

The average PC uses 746 kilowatts of power every year. That’s more electricity than a refrigerator.

 

Computers pollute the earth when they’re thrown away.

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An estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced every year. 
 

Most discarded computers from the UK are sent to landfills overseas in Vietnam, Africa, China, India, and the Philippines. There are entire regions in these countries polluted by computer waste. Computers contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals like lead which pollute soil and contaminate groundwater. So runoff from computer landfills can contaminate water used for drinking and bathing – exposing people to dangerous chemicals.
 

So there’s a pretty hefty list of reasons why our computers and phones are harming the earth.

 

But how big is the problem?

 

According to research conducted at Lancaster University in 2021, previous estimations of IT’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (1.8-2.8%) are lower than their true impact. Estimates now suggest computing could account for 2.1-3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions. 

 

This might sound small, but when you think that we produce 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases each year – 40% more than in 1990 – this is a significant proportion. In fact, this estimate suggests computer emissions could be greater than the entire aviation industry. That’s right – our use of computers may be more polluting than our use of aeroplanes. The research paper also warns that new trends like big data, AI, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, risk driving further growth in ICT’s greenhouse gas footprint.

 

Illustration by Grace Spalding, Buttercup Learning

 

Science Daily explained:

 

“Global computing could be responsible for a greater share of greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought and these emissions will continue to rise significantly unless action is taken.” 

 

Sounds a bit scary doesn’t it? Its not all bad! There’s tons of things we can all do to reduce the environmental impact of our smartphones and computers…

 

Switch up your search engine.

 

Ecosia uses its profit from search ads to plant trees. Every search removes about 1 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere! They also run on 100% renewable energy and are building new solar plants as their user base grows.

 

Google is carbon neutral too. They’ve purchased renewable electricity to match 100% of their electricity usage since 2017. They’ve invested in AI to reduce data centre cooling emissions by 40 percent. So they’re a greener choice than other search engines.

 

Avoid charging devices overnight.

 

Most phones don’t need 8 hours to fully charge! Charging overnight will waste unnecessary energy.

 

Turn off your devices. 

 

When you’re not using them, turn off your computer and smartphone to save energy. Even while in sleep mode they consume energy.
 

Manage your PC power plan. 

 

Most phones and computers have automatic power management features in their settings  – allowing you to save energy when the device is inactive. These include:

 

  • Power saving options when the PC is in active mode
  • Turning off after a specified period of inactivity
  • Activating sleep/standby mode after a specified period of inactivity

 

Turn off your wifi box overnight.

 

Save electricity and avoid your phone applications using the internet while you’re asleep.

Use Google G Suite.

 

For your email and file management – be it personal or personal or business needs – try Google’s G suite. It’s powered by 100% renewable energy.

Buy second-hand tech.

 

Limit the amount of electrical waste going to landfill sites and excreting toxic chemicals into the ground and water supplies – give old phones, tablets and laptops a second life! Too often we treat having the latest technology as a necessity not a luxury. Our junior web developer has been working on refurbished laptop for his kickstart job. 

 

Choose a green-hosted website – built with sustainable design.

 

At Buttercup, our website is green-hosted by Erjjio Studios – powered by 100% renewable energy. Our website content is optimised for fast loading – making it cleaner than 84% of pages tested by Wholegrain Digital. We are working towards offseting our website emissions with Ecologi.

 

Join the planet-friendly website revolution! Switch to a green-hosted website provider for your business or portfolio. Limit the amount of energy required to load your site by reducing the resolution of images and using minimal photographs and videos. Make it easy to navigate to reduce the amount of times pages need to be loaded by website visitors.

 

And that’s the wrap! We hope this article has given you the information and advice you need to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by altering your computer and smartphone use.

 

Don’t hesitate to reach out on Instagram if you have any further suggestions or feedback!

 

The Buttercup Team

 

Sources:

 

www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/09/210910121715.htm

 

https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/199433/cloud-computing-could-producing-hidden-greenhouse/

 

https://sciencing.com/how-do-computers-pollute-the-environment-13660586.html

 

https://ourworldindata.org/greenhouse-gas-emissions

 

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0837-6