If like me, you have embraced new technology, you will, in all probability have a smartphone. It is likely that you will also own either a tablet computer or a laptop. Some of you may also have a smartwatch as well.
The smartphone has invaded all our lives, and research suggests that there are more than 79 million active mobile phone subscriptions. A recent report shows that Smartphones have penetrated 71% of the UK market – about 57 million units, all of which are sophisticated handsets capable of streaming video, internet surfing, emailing, and even making telephone calls and humble texting.
Business has been quick to see the potential in such technology, with banks and financial institutions offering account access via self-contained mobile applications – “Apps” in common parlance.
With a smartphone and the correct apps, it is possible to buy railway tickets, check bus times, take photos or video film, and plan a route to walk, cycle or ride.
Smartphones are also able to monitor health, run a diary, shop online and remotely control domestic systems such as heating, lighting and manage solar power generation systems.
Not bad for a device that’s smaller than a reporter’s notebook!
Mobile communications are not just limited to cellular telephones, but also incorporates laptops and tablets, and as any customer of a high street coffee shop will attest to, enables work to be conducted just about anywhere where there is an internet connection.
Work isn’t just limited to processing documents. I have been unlucky enough to be seated next to a very loud woman who was conducting a Skype meeting with her team from the normal genteel environment of Costa Coffee in Haslemere. Not only is this rude and inconsiderate, but she was also revealing an awful lot about her company and its confidential details.
For the price of a coffee, it is possible to hook into a reasonably stable Wi-Fi connection and work for an hour or two, writing and responding to emails, conducting research, and creating reports and presentations.
No commuting either – so its got to be ecologically sound to either work from home, or from the local coffee shop.
So, you would think.
It’s not quite as simple as that though, but to be fair, it never is.
Have you ever thought about the invisible carbon footprint generated by mobile communications?
Let’s forget, for a moment, the environmental costs of producing a smartphone in the first place. Concentrate purely on the actual business of communicating.
In order for your simple SMS text message to be sent, the message must be digitised and transmitted over the cellular telephone network. Your phone sends these messages using microwave frequencies to the nearest cellular base station. These are easily recognisable as they normally have several antennae mounted upon a mast.
At the base of the mast, is a small building that contains all of the necessary electronics systems to enable the mobile elements of the network to interface with the Public Switched Telephone Network.
The message then has to be processed by one or more data centres and forwarded back out into the network for onward transmission over the cellular network to its intended recipient.
All of this infrastructure consumes power and has to be resilient enough to provide secure, continuous and reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Photo Credit E S Wales – Cellular Base Station
The same system supports mobile voice calls.
So – you want to read your emails in the coffee shop? Surf the web?
Emails require multiple data servers, and more computer communications centres, all of which consume massive amounts of power.
Maybe as you glug back your vente white americano you want to order that item on Amazon, or eBay?
More data servers, more computer communications centres, but now with the addition of financial data processing centres, with yet more power-hungry servers.
Here are some sobering facts.
Data Centres and Communications networks together with other parts of the infrastructure were responsible for in the region of 215 megatonnes of CO2e/yr back in 2007. By the end of 2020, this will have risen to about 764 megatonnes of CO2e/yr, with data centres accounting for about 33% of the total contribution.
The entire carbon footprint of Canada in 2016 was about 730 MtCO2e/yr!
According to research conducted by McMaster University, the relative contribution to climate change from information and computer technologies (ICT) is predicted to grow from 3.5% (2007) to about 14% by 2040.
Quite shocking when compared with global transport’s contribution of 23%! (World Health Organisation figures)
Relative emissions generated as a result of smartphone use has risen from 4% in 2010 to an expected 11% by this year.
Absolute emissions (which include the production footprint; manufacturing energy, mining energy for extracting rare metals and gold and end-user activities) from these much loved ‘phones will, therefore, jump from 17 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) to 125 Mt-CO2e/yr in the same period! That’s a massive 730% growth.
Take out the production emissions, and we are looking at 12.5 megatonnes of CO2 per year just to use our smartphones.
Our Mobile operators (In the UK, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) have an unintended impact on emissions. Many of their mobile ‘phone plans encourage their customers to upgrade to a new phone every couple of years.
I resisted this in the past and kept my old iPhone 6 for almost five years before I decided to change phones. I would have kept it longer, but the 16GB memory was full, and the software was in danger of becoming unsupported by Apple.
Encouraging and incentivising customers to change phones when their previous handset was more than adequate, is a good model for enhancing a corporation’s profit, but the negative impact on our environment is unsupportable.
There is only a limited number of ways that we, as a society can stop this.
At a societal level, state intervention and corporate governance must ensure that all data centres are upgraded so they may be powered solely by renewable sources of energy.
As individuals, we must all take a bit more responsibility.
It’s all very well for climate change protestors to exhort us all to ditch our cars, and to stop using plastics.
Equally important is not buying a new product unless the old one is either worn out, damaged beyond economic repair or no longer supported by the manufacturer or network requirements.
Upgrading to a new phone every time one comes out is nothing but technological vanity.
Remember too, if you must upgrade, then recycle your old phone.
Shockingly, less than 1% of all smartphones are being recycled.
Despite this, for the time being, Life’s Good.
 iPhone XR dimensions 150.9mm x 75.7mm x 8.3mm 174gm