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Study: Carbon Footprint of Electronic Devices Can Rival Those of Jumbo Jets

RP Siegel | Friday November 12th, 2010 | 1 Comment

A recent study by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm reveals the fact that our love affair with electronics is contributing almost as much to global warming pollution as the entire airline industry. The study shows that the combined telecommunication, media and entertainment sectors are responsible for roughly 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions, as compared to 4-5% for the airline industry when all of its supporting infrastructure is included.

This can be broken down to 1.3% for the IT and telecommunications sector and 1.7% for the media and entertainment sector. Together the two sectors contribute some 1.4 billion tons of CO2 equivalent emissions, based on 2007 data. That wasn’t very long ago, but long enough for some segments, such as cell phones to grow by an additional 50% since then.

While device efficiency continues to improve, it remains to be seen whether that will ever be enough to keep up with the enormous number of new users coming online every day.

To its credit, the study recognizes that while this technology contributes to warming, it can also be leveraged  to considerably reduce emissions in other sectors by bringing intelligence and focus to more energy intensive applications. (These opportunities were not considered in the analysis.) Still, as team member, Dag Lundén says, “this fact is no excuse for not continuing to work with energy efficiency in [this] sector.”

It’s a sentiment that is echoed in a Guardian piece which claims that the carbon footprint of cloud computing will double between 2007 and 2020. The piece refers to “an ever-scalable collection of energy sucking data centres and server farms required to deliver these services.” The piece takes exception to Joseph Romm’s 1999 seminal work, The Internet Economy and Global Warming, which claims that direct internet sales, inventory reductions, and reduced waste resulting from the internet would lead to substantial reductions in energy use and global warming. Clearly, Romm could not anticipate everything, including how enormously popular these many devices would become or how much energy would be required to maintain them.

According to the anti-virus giant McAfee, the energy required just to process email spam is enough to power two million homes.

This illustrates the waste and abuses in the system as well as anything. Some of these will always be around. But according to an article in Discover published earlier this year, a stunning 57% of all the energy produced in the US is wasted, through inefficiencies and losses in the system. Clearly this remains an enormous opportunity to improve those sectors that are contributing  in double-digit percentages to our carbon footprint, such as transportation and buildings. Using information technology for data collection and control and to generally work smarter in these sectors surely will provide savings far in excess of the additional power required.

The power consumption of these controlling inputs will continue to decrease as a natural consequence of technological innovation, much as computing speed and cost have continued to move quickly in opposite directions since the first computer filled a room. Then. of course, there is the fact that many major players such as Google are using and will continue to use renewable sources of energy.

This leads me to wonder about another kind of efficiency, one that I never hear anyone talk about. What percentage of all the goods and services that are produced and delivered every day actually contribute to anyone’s quality of life? Once we begin to address that, the opportunities to become a more efficient society will really start to increase.

RP Siegel is a Professional Engineer and co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.

Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://www.wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/jie Reid Lifset

    The research by KTH described in this news item is available as a freely downloadable article published in Yale’s Journal of Industrial Ecology at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jiec.2010.14.issue-5/issuetoc as part of a special issue on Environmental Applications of Information and Communication Technology.