What's the carbon footprint of all our electronics?

Topics
Video screen capture Topics covered

It all adds up to a huge amount of electricity consumption and carbon, both embodied and operating.

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research. That works out to 6.85 kilograms per day.

One of the problems with trying to live a low-carbon lifestyle is actually figuring out what the carbon footprint of all the different things we do actually is. It is often surprising; my carbon footprint from using the Internet is higher than my footprint from food. To find out more about where our footprint comes from, I had each of my students studying Sustainable Design at Ryerson University look at some aspect of our lives, whether it be our diet, waste, clothing, or electronics.

The students who covered electronics did some interesting work, and because the classroom went virtual mid-term, they did their presentations as videos, which I thought I would share with TreeHugger.

The students looked at a number of aspects of the carbon footprint of electronics, including Bitcoin, which has been discussed on TreeHugger before. Michelle Lan writes:

Bitcoin

Bitcoin is a mined coin, which means the mining process creates its token. In this process, Bitcoin miners act as verifiers of the transaction in contrast to real-world miners who have to physically mine for gold. In doing so, Bitcoin miners compete and attempt to solve a puzzle to complete building a block; in other words, a set of transactions. Once a successful miner solves the problem, he or she receives a reward for their service; hence new Bitcoin comes to existence. According to Digiconomist, as of Sunday, March 22nd, 2020, Bitcoin's estimated electricity consumption is 68.5 TWh per year. In essence, this is equivalent to Czech Republic's annual electricity consumption, as well it is sufficient enough to power 6,342,327 American homes.

The biggest drawback of the 'proof-of-work' consensus algorithm used by Bitcoin is the misuse of enormous energy. Although the 'proof-of-work' mechanism can effectively deter potential attacks, the concerns for its energy efficiency and sustainable practice are problematic. Alternatives to mining mechanisms that are more energy efficient include proof-of-stake (PoS). PoS reduces the computing power required to effectively mine a block since the system removes competition and works on one problem at a time. In comparison to proof-of-work as it uses many machines to solve one puzzle thus racking up energy consumption. Bitcoin could potentially switch to such a consensus algorithm, which would significantly improve its sustainability. Another solution to Bitcoin's high energy consumption is moving towards solar power and other green energy sources to mine.

Gaming

I have never been much of a gamer, and was very curious about how big a footprint it had. I had no idea it was so popular, either. Reese-Joan Young writes:

It would be a severe understatement to describe the Video Gaming industry as anything but a “big deal”. As per a 2018 inquiry from Reuters, the revenue generated by it was stated to have “eclipsed that of all other major entertainment categories” - surpassing Television, Box Office Film and Digital Music. And looking to recent events, this growth hasn’t seemed to waver in the slightest. Amidst the movements towards self-isolation in global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, now, more than ever, there are more and more individuals stuck at home and gaming to pass the time while digitally interacting with others they would otherwise be unable to interact with. Despite how popular gaming is, there exists an astounding deficit in user understanding of their hobby’s environmental impact. I’ve chosen to analyze specific elements of the gaming industry to contribute to the dialog that aims to answer the question “how does an individual’s gaming hobby contribute to global carbon emissions?”.

This issue of power consumption of video gameplay and graphics was mentioned in “Toward Greener Gaming”, published in 2019 by the Computer Games Journal. Computer gaming alone is said to make up “2.4% of all residential electricity in the United States, with carbon emissions equal to more than 5 million cars, adding up to $5 billion spent." As for upcoming initiatives, the industry’s focus on "play anywhere" experiences for mobile games, is projected to bring a more “increased energy footprint than with regular mobile gaming'' due to necessary energy usage of data centres and cloud networking infrastructure.

SOLUTION: Redevelop video game concept generation strategies because an engaging story that addresses a meaningful social issue is very possible. An example of this is the Civilization game series, wherein the idea of a “circular economy” is conveyed and promoted as a core gameplay mechanic with the goal in-game being to establish “resources and production as precisely consumed by what one needs”. As for the relevance of gamification to the big idea of sustainability, it is important to remember that global change requires a shift in every sphere - and this act, as unnecessary as it may seem, provides a platform for such concepts and ideas to circulate within the Gaming Industry and influence society as a whole.

How long do our electronics last? What can we do about it?

Pooja Patel quotes Greenpeace: "From its choice of energy to the selection of raw materials, the industry needs to reinvent the way that electronic devices are made and used in society to reverse the ever-increasing environmental impacts driven by the growth of the sector."

Embodied Carbon

Lin Gao explains that "Embodied Carbon is Carbon generated by producing the materials of the electronics, moving the materials, installing the materials; it is the carbon [taken] to manufacture the electronics up to the delivery of it."

Electronics are one of the most heavily-imported commodity groups in the North American economy. And shipping by air is the most energy-intensive method of shipping. Transportation as part of the upfront carbon emission adds on a great deal of upfront carbon emission for electronics. As globalization and international trade continue to increase, and the electronics consumption continues to increase, it is likely that electronics will continue to play a dominant role in upfront carbon emission on international trade. The upfront carbon emitted by imported electronic goods in one state is greater than the total amount of direct carbon emission of one state.

Approximately 2/3 of the carbon emission of electronics can be traced to upfront carbon emission of it, which is the manufacturing of storage devices, semiconductor, and PCB components. The embodied carbon in the major parts and components that electronic goods used to assemble computer products account for nearly 60% of its total analyzed footprint, and the embodied carbon from various chemical, gases, metallic materials, and other semiconductor materials supplies, accounted for nearly 40% of its total analyzed footprint.

What about power consumption?

There is something to be said for these virtual presentations; they provide a record, and they can be shared widely. I certainly learned that the impact of our electronics goes far beyond their basic energy consumption, which Mara Caza covers in this talk.

What's the carbon footprint of all our electronics?
It all adds up to a huge amount of electricity consumption and carbon emitted, both embodied and operating.

Related Content on Treehugger.com