The New Apple iMac Is a Demonstration of Decoupling

Can we get more out of less, make better stuff with less environmental impact?

Apple iMac


Decoupling is defined by the OECD as "breaking the link between 'environmental bads' and 'economic goods.'" It is key to the idea of green growth — that we can continue to have nice things without destroying the planet. There are many who question whether it can happen; as the introduction to a European Environmental Bureau report titled "Decoupling Debunked" noted:

"The conclusion is both overwhelmingly clear and sobering: not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future."
Apple Progression over 20 years


Then we have the new Apple iMac. It is a demonstration of decoupling, cast in shiny aluminum and glass. It's not only a technological milestone but also an environmental one and an attitudinal one. Over 20 years it has dematerialized to where it is a shadow of its former self, even just looking back to the most recent 2017 iteration.

Computer interior new Imac on right
New iMac on right, old on left.


Apple is able to do this because it has integrated the guts of a computer — the CPU, the memory, and the video card — all into its new M1 chip, which runs so efficiently it just needs tiny fans that don't even turn on very often. The computer itself is actually a little card at the bottom of the case; all the rest is basically the monitor and what looks like heat dispersion plates.

24 inch imac life cycle


Apple does a pretty thorough job in its environmental reports, providing full life-cycle analyses "including the materials they are made of, the people who assemble them, and how they are recycled at end of life." It pitches this machine as a replacement for the 21.5-inch iMac but it is likely it will replace a few 27-inch units, so I put the life cycle numbers of all three into a spreadsheet:

Emissions from apple iMac computers

Lloyd Alter

The new 24" iMac has pretty much the same footprint as the smaller one, and about 60% of the footprint that the 27" had. Like most new versions of electronic equipment, the latest does more with less. However, the authors of "Decoupling Debunked" are not impressed with these technological advances, writing:

"In terms of materials, the making of information and communication technology products such as computers, mobile telephones, LED screens, batteries, and solar cells require scarce metals like gallium, indium, cobalt, platinum, in addition to rare minerals. An expansion of services means more transactions using more devices, which require more minerals whose extraction involves environmental impacts."
Environmental plan

Apple Environmental Progress Report

Apple is not alone in trying to use less of these, find substitutions, reduce their impacts and recover as much as possible through recycling. These materials are expensive and there is a big incentive to use less of them.

And while there has been a dramatic increase in the use of services, the data centers are getting cleaner all the time. One of the biggest reasons for an expansion of services is that they are enabling people to work and be entertained at home, with a concomitant reduction in emissions from cars.

New iPad Pro

Apple iPad Pro

Apple is by no means perfect. Many complain about repairability and planned obsolescence — I, for one, do want that shiny new iPad — and tech doesn't always go in the right direction. In the tech ecosystem, Bitcoin is probably sucking up all the carbon savings. But it does demonstrate that a company can decouple emissions from a growing economy,

The Decoupling Debunkers, if they acknowledge Apple at all, might quote their finding that "in most cases, decoupling is relative. When absolute decoupling occurs, it is observed only during rather short periods of time, concerning only certain resources or forms of impact, for specific locations, and with very small rates of mitigation."

Their position is that "the hypothesis that decoupling will allow economic growth to continue without a rise in environmental pressures appears highly compromised, if not clearly unrealistic."

Every time I see a new electric SUV or hear talk of hydrogen-powered airplanes or giant machines sucking carbon dioxide out of the air, I think they might be right. There is no question the way we do things has to change.

On the other hand, I have seen how our buildings can be decoupled from emissions with Passivhaus and low carbon materials; how transportation can be decoupled with good urban design, transit, bikes, and e-bikes; how nutrition can be decoupled with small changes in diet. And of course, how communications are being decoupled with that little iPhone and its siblings.

Woman in copenhagen biking and looking at phone

Lloyd Alter/ seen in Copenhagen

To paraphrase a famous Taras Grescoe tweet, the future of the city is 21st-century communications (like the iPhone) and 19th-century transportation (like the bike.) Preferably, not at the same time.