Carbon Footprint of Computing and ICT May Be Bigger Than Expected, Study Says

It will only keep growing if nothing changes.

Close-up Shot Of Young Woman Working Late With Laptop In The Dark
Oscar Wong / Getty Images

As Monday’s Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp outage proved, we are ever more dependent on information technology for entertainment, work, and human connection. But what is the climate cost of all our viral videos and group chats?

A new study published in Patterns last month suggests the carbon footprint of Information Communication Technology (ICT) is even higher than previously estimated and will only keep growing if nothing changes.

“ICT’s environmental impact will not reduce in-line with the Paris Agreement without major concerted efforts involving broad political and industrial action,” study co-author Kelly Widdicks of Lancaster University tells Treehugger in an email.

The Environmental Cost of Information

Widdicks’ research team from Lancaster University and the sustainability-focused Small World Consulting reviewed three major studies that had assessed ICT emissions since 2015. 

“ICT’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions is currently estimated at 1.8-2.8%, but when considering the full supply chain impacts and emission scopes for ICT, we found that this share actually lies between 2.1-3.9%,” Widdicks says.

That might not seem like a big contribution when compared to things like heat and electricity (25% of global emissions), agriculture and land use (24%), or transportation (14%). However, the revised estimate puts ICT emissions above the contribution of the worldwide aviation industry, which hovers around 2%.

ICT products and technology generate emissions throughout their lifecycle, from the mining of minerals and metals to the manufacturing of devices to the energy that powers them to their eventual disposal. The paper authors concluded that these emissions were underestimated partly because study authors failed to consider all the possible routes a single product could take through a supply chain. This is something called “truncation error.” Further, there was disagreement about what exactly counted as ICT. Some studies included televisions, for example, while others did not. The study authors’ higher emissions estimate both corrected for truncation error and included TVs and other consumer electronics. 

Further, the authors thought those emissions would continue to rise under current conditions. They argued that ICT’s emissions were both higher than estimated and likely to increase for three main reasons. 

  1. The Rebound Effect: The rebound effect is the term for what happens when improving the efficiency of a product or technology leads to an increase in demand, offsetting energy savings. This has happened throughout the history of ICT, and there is no reason to believe it will stop.
  2. Downplaying Trends: Current studies tend to either minimize or ignore three main growing trends in the ICT sector—Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain. The papers reviewed in the study only looked briefly at AI and IoT and not at all at blockchain. 
  3. Increasing Investments: At the same time, the industry is investing in AI, IoT, and blockchain in a big way going forward. 

Bitcoin and the Blockchain

The emissions from blockchain have generated a lot of attention in recent years because of the rise of Bitcoin. Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency that uses a blockchain to add transactions to a digital ledger. Bitcoin “miners” solve complicated computer problems to confirm blocks of transactions and are rewarded with digital coins. 

However, the computing power needed to solve these problems is extremely energy-intensive. In fact, the yearly electricity consumption of Bitcoin rivals that of several countries. As of Monday, it sat at 102.30 terawatt-hours, more than Portugal, Chile, or New Zealand. 

Some have argued that it would be possible to mine Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies more sustainably, Widdicks says. Miners could use less energy-intensive algorithms or power their problem-solving with renewable energy. 

However, there are some dangers with seeing renewable energy as a solution to the energy use of Bitcoin in particular and information technology more broadly. For one thing, the infrastructure required for renewable energy generates its own emissions. For another, many renewable technologies require metals in limited supply, such as the silver needed for solar panels. 

In the case of Bitcoin specifically, the machines used to mine it generate their own electronic waste. Further, nearly half of Bitcoin mining capacity is centered in Sichuan, China, which is currently reliant on fossil-fuel energy.

Beyond Bitcoin itself, some have argued that blockchain could be part of the solution to the climate crisis. The European Commission, for example, wants to use it to generate more transparent and accurate information about greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to reduce them. But the study authors pointed out that European efforts to use ICT to reduce emissions were only expected to do so by 15%, not enough to meet climate goals. And the emissions from ICT itself still have to be factored in.

“In the future, the ICT sector (including industry, academia, and government) may need to make tough choices on what problems can and should be solved using computing, and who can access the required ICT resources for such solutions,” Widdicks says.

Powering Down

The study authors do not believe that ICT emissions have to keep rising, however. Part of stopping the rise means calculating those emissions accurately. 

“We need to ensure the entire ICT sector is taking the same approach to calculating ICT’s emissions that are fully inclusive of the supply chain and all emission scopes, that these estimates are transparent and shared so they can be independently scrutinised, and that the whole sector sets and meare suets carbon reduction targets that are in-line with the Paris Agreement,” Widdicks says. 

Beyond simply shifting to renewable energy sources, tech companies can meet these targets by making sure their designs themselves are sustainable. To this end, the researchers are now working on the PARIS-DE (Design Principles and Responsible Innovation for a Sustainable Digital Economy) project. This is a digital lab that will allow developers to assess the carbon footprint of potential designs. 

There are some things that individuals can do to reduce the emissions generated by their personal computing, Widdicks says. These include keeping devices for as long as possible to avoid the waste of disposal and buying from companies with clear climate targets. 

“However,” Widdicks adds, “much more needs to be done at the industry and political-level and this is where the emphasis on sustainable change for the ICT sector should be.” 

Companies can do a lot more than consumers to end planned obsolescence, for example, such as making sure new software isn’t incompatible with older hardware. Further, they can design in such a way that encourages sustainable behaviors. Streaming services can stop automatically playing videos or using high-definition as the default playback mode.

View Article Sources
  1. Freitag, Charlotte, et al. "The Real Climate and Transformative Impact of ICT: A Critique of Estimates, Trends, and Regulations." Patterns, vol. 2, no. 9, 2021, p. 100340., doi:10.1016/j.patter.2021.100340

  2. "Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data." United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  3. "Facts & Figures." Air Transport Action Group.