Are Smartphones Killing the Planet?
New research shows how communication technology can be more energy-efficient.
Posted Dec 07, 2018
In a recent article entitled “Smartphones Are Killing the Planet Faster Than Anyone Expected,” Fast Company urged its readers to “hesitate when it comes to our next shiny tech splurge…and to buy less, and engage less, for the health of this entire planet.” That recommendation resonates with research we have shared in this column over the years on energy consumption and the resultant carbon footprint of electronics and ICT (Information and Communication Technology). But whoever wrote that headline hadn’t completed their homework.
It’s true that until recently most studies have projected a growing carbon footprint for ICT in general, linking increased data traffic and usage of mobile devices to rising energy consumption and carbon emissions (the Fast Company article is based largely on one such study). But the predictions of an ever-dirtier ICT business are proving to have been too dire, as new research is showing slower increases in energy consumption and mobile phone purchases, even though data traffic has rapidly risen. While conditions for producing such positive changes vary from country to country, depending on the national electricity mix, recent efforts to aggregate and analyze global data on ICT carbon footprint have shown greener trends than anticipated just a couple years ago.
In one comprehensive study from 2018, Swedish researchers examined global data on energy use and carbon footprints of ICT and EM (entertainment and media) technologies from 2010-2015. They found that the ICT portion of the total global carbon footprint was 1.4 percent in 2015, about the same as 2010 levels. 22 percent of that is attributed to data centers and business networks, 24 percent to ICT networks, and 54 percent to user devices. The EM portion was 1.2 percent of the global total, of which two-thirds was produced by TVs, TV networks, and consumer electronics; the rest by paper media and home and business printers. Overall, EM carbon footprint has declined as EM technology becomes more energy-efficient and consumers look more often for traditional EM content on ICT devices like tablets and smartphones.
There’s not enough space here to discuss the variables considered in this careful and thorough study, though a few observations are worth mentioning. The smartphone “and similar terminal platforms” played a surprising role in the slowing of ICT emissions, according to the authors. Smartphone sales between 2010 and 2015 were twice as high as sales of PCs, TVs, and tablets combined. The authors argue that a move away from PCs and TV means “large energy savings,” as consumers prefer smaller devices with lower levels of embodied carbon (from extractive and manufacturing phases) and electricity consumption over their lifetimes. Meanwhile, the study notes, “data traffic (mobile and WiFi) from smartphones has grown fast from <1% in 2010 to about 10% in 2015 and will continue to grow fast to about 30–40% in 2020.” Most of that growth will be in video and streaming content. This raises the specter of the dirty cloud and its carbon footprint; but here, too, the latest research is showing improvements in emissions and electricity use.
Data centers’ electricity consumption and carbon emissions were supposed to increase exponentially with the rise in data traffic. But research now shows that while global data traffic grew about “30 times over 2005-2015” the “computing capacity per amount of energy for a typical one socket rack server has increased 100-fold over 2005–2015.” The International Energy Agency (IEA) confirms that data centers’ average global electricity consumption stabilized after 2010 and projects that it will remain relatively stable to 2020. In the US, which has about a third of the world’s data center market, electricity consumption from data centers stopped growing in 2010 and remained at about 1.8 percent of global totals through 2014. This trend is due entirely to efficiency improvements, without which data center electricity consumption would have doubled in the US during that period.
This is not to claim that all data centers are performing at sustainable levels. There are problems to overcome, especially in smaller data center configurations (the vast majority) and in countries with a dirty electricity mix. But newer technologies and the emergence of “hyperscale” data centers have presented models for ongoing improvements in energy consumption. The hyperscale data centers, which are designed to maximize efficiency, have slowly begun to replace smaller, localized and less efficient systems (one server in a hyperscale data center can replace 3.75 servers in non-hyperscale data centers, according to a US study).
Still, the green potential of these warehouse size centers can be stifled without improved management and the implementation of the most efficient operating standards available. There are additional barriers to a full “hyperscale shift,” including concerns with security and regulation. Further resistance to hyperscale centers comes from industries where instant data transmission is critical. In the financial sector, for example, milliseconds mean money. But hyperscale data centers are located too far from such users to deliver real-time transmission for flash trading. Policy reformers in the financial sector would do well to take this environmental factor into consideration.
Internet data transmission networks add to this mix high levels of electricity consumption as well: they use about one percent of total global electricity consumption (this excludes fixed landline networks). Improvements in mobile-network energy use have followed developments in telecommunication technologies. 2G networks are over 100 times more energy-intensive than fixed-line networks, 3G networks over 10 times, and 4G networks about four times. The IEA cautions that while these network improvements help reduce energy consumption, higher speeds may have a rebound effect of higher usage and traffic volumes, off-setting any reductions in electricity usage. And as we argued recently in this column, the next mobile network based on 5G technology will create further risks of human exposure to radio-frequency radiation, now linked to certain kinds of cancer.
The recent publication of two large scientific reports on climate change leaves little doubt that humans have made the Earth an inhospitable place for life to flourish. The latest, and most urgent, report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we have about twelve years to make radical changes to our carbon-emitting ways, or disaster awaits. And the National Climate Assessment, a project of 13 US Federal departments and agencies, reports that the US faces imminent risks from rising sea levels, wildfires, drought, floods, atmospheric warming, and a weakening of the country’s ecosystems’ ability to absorb carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases.
Our efforts to meet the challenges of the ecological crisis can benefit from the digitization of energy production and consumption, but only if innovations in producing and powering our digital devices, including smartphones and mobile networks, stick to a green agenda, ensuring that the pace of reductions in electricity consumption match the urgency of climate change.