Computers ‘worse for environment than plane travel’

The carbon impact of computers is set to rise even further, researchers warn

Samuel Webb
Friday 10 September 2021 15:00
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Global computing could be responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than air travel, according to new research.

The study says the carbon footprint of computers is far higher than previously thought and will continue to rise significantly unless action is taken.

Previous calculations show information communication technology’s (ICT) share of global greenhouse emissions is 1.8-2.8 per cent.

But a team of researchers from Lancaster University and sustainability consultancy Small World Consulting point out that some of these prior estimates do not account for the full life-cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure, such as the energy expended in manufacturing and disposing of the products and equipment.

The researchers argue ICT’s true proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1-3.9 per cent – though they stress that there are still significant uncertainties around these calculations – suggesting ICT has emissions greater than the aviation industry, at around two per cent of global emissions.

In addition, the paper warns that new trends in computing and ICT such as big data and AI, the Internet of Things, as well as blockchain and cryptocurrencies, risk driving further substantial growth.

It has often been cited that ICT and computing technologies will lead to greater efficiencies across many other sectors, leading to savings in net greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the researchers argue that historical evidence proves the opposite, that over the years ICT’s footprint has taken up a greater proportion of global emissions.

Professor Mike Berners-Lee from Small World Consulting said: “We know that ICT has an ever-growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy.

“But its relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume.

“Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question.”

The researchers recognise that several of the world’s technology giants have made statements on reducing their climate footprint, but argue that many of these pledges are not ambitious enough and industry self-regulation may not be sufficient to bring about the emissions reductions needed.

Dr Kelly Widdicks co-author of the study from Lancaster University said: “Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets.

“We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT’s environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in line with the Paris Agreement.”

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