Christmas gifts: the manufacture of our digital devices has a huge carbon footprint

The holiday season is fast approaching and you are looking to offer electronic devices to your loved ones? Smartphones, video consoles, tablets, e-readers, connected watches, computers, external batteries; the least we can say is that the options are numerous.



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But, as consumers of these products, are we really aware of the enormous carbon cost associated with the whole life cycle of our gift, from the manufacture, to the use and the end of life of these electronic devices? ? In one recently published articlemy colleagues and I have shown that the carbon footprint associated with the use of digital services (watching movies and series streaming, listening to music, sending emails, meeting via videoconference) is dominated by the manufacture of electronic devices.

As researchers working on the environmental impacts of economic systems, we believe it is important to alert users of digital services to the issues associated with the production of their electronic devices. We also provide some tips and tricks for those who wish to give an electronic product as a gift.

Rampant production of electronics and waste

Digital data traffic has gone from 100 GB per day in 1992 to 46,000 GB per second in 2017, and could reach 150,000 GB per second before the end of 2022. The digitization of our society has also been accompanied by an intensive use of electronic devices.

In 2019, the four billion users of digital services in the world owned 34 billion digital devices. The number of electronic devices connected to the internet is expected to reach 200 billion units by 2030.

The frantic production of electronic devices produced each year also generates a significant amount of electronic waste to be treated at the end of their life. It is estimated that the world has generated 53 million tonnes of electronic waste in 2019, of which only 17% was recycled. On average, a Canadian generates 20 kg of electronic waste per year.

The carbon footprint of electronic devices

In a recently published article, we created several digital service use profiles (intensive, moderate and conscientious) in order to compare the carbon footprint of users according to a number of parameters. We are talking in particular about the number of electronic devices purchased, the model and the time that consumers decide to keep them.

Due to the manufacture of electronic devices alone, the carbon footprint varies from 90 kg to 327 kg eq. CO₂ per year.

To put these figures into perspective, it suffices to put them into perspective in relation to the carbon budget available for each inhabitant of the earth (2.1 t eq. CO₂ per year) in order to comply with climate agreements. By way of comparison, the emissions per person of Quebecers represent on average nearly 10 t eq. CO₂ per year. It is thus estimated that the annual weight of the manufacture of electronic devices in the carbon budget of users varies between 4% (conscientious user) to 16% (intensive user).

Carbon footprint of manufacturing electronic devices based on user profiles.
(Luciano Rodrigues Viana), Supplied by the author

The carbon budget of users can be further compromised when the electricity consumption of electronic devices is added to it. An intensive user in Alberta would thus consume 25% of its carbon budget (very carbon-intensive electricity). These figures rise to 17% for the same usage profile in Quebec (low carbon electricity).

Let’s not forget that we must also add to this carbon budget what we eat, the transport we use, our vacations, our business trips, our clothes, the heating of our house, and so on. In short, you have understood that each consumption choice is important in the equation of our carbon budget, a budget that we want to respect global climate objectives.

In light of these results, buying fewer electronic products and above all extending their lifespan are the two most effective actions to reduce the carbon footprint of users of digital services.

Although this solution seems trivial, rapid technological obsolescence and social pressures lead users to regularly buy new electronic devices instead of keeping them longer.

In the United States, for example, smartphones are being replaced, on average, after 2.75 years of use. Worldwide, 1.43 billion smartphones were sold in 2021. These figures reinforce the need for a more rational use of digital products.

Where does this high carbon footprint come from?

The high carbon impact of electronic products stems in particular from the production of power and control electronic boards and components, as well as the production of screens for the products concerned.

The extraction and transformation of minerals essential to the manufacture of electronic products (gold, silver, copper, cobalt, lithium, rare earths and others) require a large amount of energy.

In addition, the production of components and the assembly of finished products are largely carried out in China (61% of the production of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector for 2015), where the production of electricity is very carbon-intensive.

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Carbon footprint of manufacturing certain makes and models of smart phones. Transport, use and end-of-life stages are not included in the assessment.
(Luciano Rodrigues Viana), Supplied by the author

Beyond making ICT users feel guilty

If individual action can reduce our ecological footprint related to the manufacture of electronic devices, it is largely insufficient for the emergence of a digital industry compatible with planetary limits. States and companies therefore have a fundamental role to play.

Governments must, among other things, create laws to combat the waste of material and energy resources. For example, require manufacturers of electronic products to display the level of repairability of their products and even prohibit the marketing of non-repairable and non-recyclable products.

Companies must adopt economic models that are consistent with the environmental and social issues of our time.

Today, the business model used by most manufacturers of electronic devices is largely based on planned obsolescence (technical, aesthetic and software). In other words, it is a strategy that aims to create, among consumers, a constant need leading them to buy new goods.

These practices are likely at odds with current efforts to develop a digital industry consistent with a carbon neutral trajectory.

Offer digital products

If you absolutely want to offer electronic products to your loved ones, don’t forget to consider at least three aspects in your decision.

First, make sure your gift will actually be used. It is a shame to mobilize so many raw materials and energy to manufacture devices that will be used very little, if ever. The carbon footprint of an e-reader, for example, is amortized between 50 and 100 books read. Thus, for a person who reads, say five books per year, it is necessary to keep the reader for 10 to 20 years so that each additional electronic book has less carbon impact than the paper format.

Second, preferably buy refurbished products. For example, on average, a refurbished smartphone is up to 8 times less impacting on the environment than new (82 kg of materials saved and 87% less greenhouse gases). It’s good for the planet, but also for the wallet!

Finally, look for environmental and social information on the products you want to buy. You have to choose those who are more easily repairable, energy efficientemit less carbon and manufactured in the respect for human rights.

The next time someone gives you an electronic product, you will now know that it has a very important impact on the planet. At least make sure you give it the longest possible life!

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Christmas gifts: the manufacture of our digital devices has a huge carbon footprint


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