Smartphones are a significant threat to the world’s climate, research reveals

Smartphones and other internet-connected gadgets are incredibly important for navigating the current century. These devices have effectively replaced many analog alternatives, such as radios, cameras, and even desktop computers. In fact, they’ve been able to replace non-material things as well, such as money, most forms of identification, and even health records.

Yet for all their benefits, smartphones and most other electronic devices also come with problems. This seems to be the crux a new study titled, “Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations,” which was published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

It’s said that many experts think the world of electronic devices is a way to fix the current problems plaguing Earth and the environment, since they can help reduce the number of items used by most people on a daily basis. But the researchers oppose that notion, saying that they’ve got a lot of hard data to prove that the opposite may be happening.

According to Lotfi Belkhir, an association professor and the Chair of Eco-Entrepreneurship at McMaster University, the ICT industry as a whole may end up doing more harm to the planet than other industries that are known to be harmful to the environment. “Having conducted a meticulous and fairly exhaustive inventory of the contribution of ICT —including devices like PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones and tablets — and infrastructure like data centres and communication networks,” he said, “we found that the relative contribution of ICT to the total global footprint is expected to grow from about one per cent in 2007 to 3.5 per cent by 2020 and reaching 14 per cent by 2040.”

That is quite an alarming discovery, especially since many people do believe that using gadgets in lieu of other conventional alternatives can be helpful in preventing the production of waste materials. For instance, using traditional paper or plastic maps instead of the more practical online or app-based maps that are available nowadays through smartphones could lead to waste products that need to be discarded when the maps are no longer needed. But it seems that even using smartphones as the more accessible and more versatile alternative will still contribute to waste that can harm the environment.

The results of the study conducted by the researchers showed clearly that the so-called relative emissions share of smartphones will go from just four percent in 2010 to 11 percent by 2020. And in terms of absolute values, the researchers said that emissions caused by smartphones will go from a mere 17 megatons to a whopping 125 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year (Mt-CO2e/yr) during that time span. That means a 730 percent growth overall, and it’s not a good  outlook. (Related: Discarded Mobile Phones Create an Avalanche of Toxic E-Waste.)

Technology impacts the environment in multiple ways

The researchers noted that it isn’t really using smartphones and electronic devices that will cause this huge spike, but rather, the way in which they are manufactured. That’s because in making them, they end up using manufacturing energy, as well as energy for material mining for gold and “rare-earth” elements such as yttrium, lanthanium, and others, according to the researchers. They also pointed out that carriers and phone makers themselves are to blame, since they promote phone plans that need to be renewed every 24 months at least, causing users to switch phones even though they may not need to yet.

But using smartphones and other electronic devices does harm the environment in certain ways, such as when you go online and access information that’s stored in data somewhere, and make use of data centers that run on electricity and generate massive amounts of heat. In short, these devices can cause harm to the environment pretty much through every step of the process.

There may be a way out of this problem regarding smartphones, however. The researchers suggest that all data centers should be converted to run on renewable energy only, for starters. And as for what you can do personally, you can avoid scratching the upgrade itch every two years or so, and try to recycle your older phones.

To learn more about the dangers of using smartphones, visit

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