Study: smartphones and massive data centers harm the environment

From MCMASTER UNIVERSITY

Data centres and smartphones will be the most damaging information and communications technologies to the environment by 2040, according to new research from W Booth School’s Lotfi Belkhir.

Google Server Farm in Council Bluffs, Iowa

At the end of winter term in 2014, Lotfi Belkhir was approached by a student taking his Total Sustainability and Management course who asked, “What does software sustainability mean?”

The Entrepreneurship and Innovation Associate Professor at the W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology didn’t have an answer.

Belkhir teaches students to think creatively about sustainability tools that can be applied to their entrepreneurial ventures. But his tools, at the time, mainly applied to hardware startups, not software.

The student’s question sparked Belkhir’s latest research on the global emissions footprint of information and communications technology (ICT).

Belkhir, along with Ahmed Elmeligi, a recent W Booth grad and co-founder of the startup, HiNT (Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology), studied the carbon footprint of consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, desktops as well as data centres and communication networks as early as 2005. Their findings were recently published in the 2018 Journal of Cleaner Production.

Not only did they discover that software is driving the consumption of ICT, they also found that ICT has a greater impact on emissions than we thought and most emissions come from production and operation.

“We found that the ICT industry as a whole was growing but it was incremental,” Belkhir explains. “Today it sits at about 1.5%. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14% for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide.”

“For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there’s a data centre making this happen. Telecommunications networks and data centres consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see.”

Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment are smartphones. While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85% of their emissions impact comes from production.

A smartphone’s chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost.

Smartphones also have a short life which drives further production of new models and an extraordinary amount of waste.

“Anyone can acquire a smartphone, and telecommunications companies make it easy for people to acquire a new one every two years. We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops.”

Belkir has made policy recommendations based on his findings.

“Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones.”

With his latest research, Belkhir hopes to help students in his Total Sustainability and Management course expand their worldview.

“When they start the course, many students don’t know what sustainability means. When the course ends their worldview has changed and they realize what they want to do and why they want to do it.”

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68 thoughts on “Study: smartphones and massive data centers harm the environment

  1. Not sure where to put this but “WTF are they teaching people these days”. Not how to make a better widget but how to take things that are great and make them sound bad.

    • The school are infected with Socialist gobbledygook, i spend more time deprograming my kids than I do actually teaching them any more. The schools wind them up with irrational fears and then harmer them with group think until they are so stressed that they can’t do anything. It is no wonder we have such an epidemic of kids with disorders of every kind, they are told we are the cause of imminent world demise on a daily basis and that we should feel guilt about all the evils we commit or have commited or may commit and then they have zero outlet for their stress except to join the rah rah group think love fest and give up all your self worth and individual ideas to the group. its George Orwell on steroids.

    • Does W Booth stand for Wilkes Booth?
      “Total Sustainability and Management course” kind of says it all.
      How about a “Total Adaptability and Resource Management to Provide Global Affluence” course ?

  2. Looks to me like a few typographical errors. Should be:
    Idiot-phones and massive misanthropic privacy violating data silos harm the human environment

    • Not much it seems. I was around when they forecast that as computers proliferated we would see paperless offices. More paper used instead as it was so easy to print a hard copy with the new computer driven printers. I have a son-in-law computer programmer who wants to work from home but the boss likes to see his employees so has them come to work in the city each day. City councillors seem to be on frequent fact finding missions overseas to see what others are doing when the information is readily available on city homepages. Communications just ensure we spend more time talking and less time doing.

      • “Not much it seems.”
        We’re about to avoid around 100,000 person-miles of travel because of the Internet. Thirty years ago, if we were going to upgrade a customer site, we had to send people there to do it. Today we can usually do it over the Internet unless it involves moving LAN cables around on an operational system.
        In another ten years we’ll have VR drones at our customer sites and just log into those to do any hardware maintenance required. That will eliminate pretty much all our remaining travel needs, except to the sites that don’t have Internet access (i.e. the ones that typically require taking a snowmobile and a shotgun).

      • “We’re about to avoid around 100,000 person-miles of travel because of the Internet.”
        hum… looks like politician budget “My budget went from 9 to 10 billion, but if it were not for me, it would have been 11 billion. My action prevented the spending of 1 Billion”.
        My personal and professional experience is that internet comes atop travel. I, and everyone around me, travel just as much as before (and even more, but this has to do with cheaper price). We just do more things (and lose time in different ways than we did before) thanks to internet.

      • MarkG
        My average business trip was about 2000 miles each way, so one trip was 4,000 person miles. So, the internet is going to save 25 trips? Big deal. Or did you leave out some zeros?
        Yes, use of the available communications mechanisms could certainly save a lot of business travel, but the bosses want to see the bodies face-to-face. And we always had to have big meetings, with 100 or more people for the better part of a week. And, regrettably, in my business, video teleconferencing was a non-starter. The security implementations made the time lags way too large.

    • No traveling should be avoided till the global climate party starts to use communication technology instead of meeting someplace every yr, at least from the point of view of CAGW. From the point of view of saving some fossil fuels for the future then lots of high quality teleconf tech should be used.

    • Exactly – In my neck of the woods Google has a brand new and very large data center in Eastern Oregon. Renewable energy?? lets see, all the Bonneville power energy (Hydro / nuclear – NOT considered ‘renewable’) was spoken for years ago, there are some wind farms with a very low capacity factor and they are also spoken for by the utilities who own them, solar only works during the day and much of the internet loads occur at other times, A large coal station near the Google facility is being closed at the demand of the Oregon Governor. So WHERE is this renewable energy coming from??
      Sounds very much like something a politically correct company SAYS but doesn’t really do anything about.

  3. “When they start the course, many students don’t know what sustainability means…”
    And when they end the course, they are brainwashed zombies chanting PC slogans.
    What does “sustainability” mean?
    It is a meaningless all-powerful mantra for PC-Progs to chant to signal their virtue to other believers.
    ““Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones.”
    Oh, okay, now it’s clear. “Sustainable” means that businesses must do as they are told by the sustainability bureaucrats.
    Hmmm…sounds familiar. I think that’s been tried before.

    • Kent,
      British readers may remember a wonderful and deeply cynical satire of PC corporate life and jargon called 2012. It was about the team tasked with delivering the London olympics and it started Hugh Bonneville as the constantly bemused leader. Anyhow, in the first series a “Director of Sustainability” was appointed but she was joined by a “Director of Legacy” in the second series. There then followed continuous turf issues and arguments as to what the terms meant, what each person’s job entailed and where demarcation lines lay. The matters were never resolved because nobody could work it out. Very funny series.

      • Exactly.
        “Sustainability” means everything, anything, and nothing.
        An academic course on “Sustainability” is a joke.
        The real meaning is that you schmucks just shut up and do as you’re told.

    • I used to tell my students that “sustainabilitiy” was basically a BS virtue signaling buzz word. If they wanted to try “sustainable” they should become Amish.

    • Sustainability: capability of being sustained
      But that defines nothing, as everyone has a different opinion as to who or what gets sacrificed or compromised to afford the level of “sustainability” for their pet biases.

      • The one thing I have never heard discussed by “sustainability proponents” is what is required to have a sustainable economy.

    • There was an industry in the USA that was run on a sustainability model. They grew trees. They would harvest trees based on market demand. One year may have exceeded the growth of the forest that year but the next years harvest would be reduced to maintain the equilibrium. For each tree cut down at least one was planted. Then came the spotted owl and this sustainable business model was vilified. Many mills were shut down and unemployment ensued. No good deed goes unpunished.

  4. “Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones.”
    I say all colleges who put this drivel out should be required to go under renewable energy now and be disconnected from the grid.

    • MJPenny
      What mayhem would ensue if a Google or Facebook data centre went down because the wind didn’t blow, or the sun shine.
      People would be forced to take to the streets in their million to visit the local library every 5 minutes: postal services would be swamped with texts and FB one liners sent to entire families at once: the streets would be lined with chains of postal workers passing messages to and fro: high street stores would once again flourish and the van delivery network would collapse: porn would once again be confined to seedy back street stores, and the top shelves of corner shops for the soft stuff: public houses would flourish as people realised they have been sad and lonely in front of a computer screen (ahem) and sought social dialogue with other fleshy things: and dogs would be well walked as people scurried from one house to the other to maintain their crumbling social networks.
      And of course, energy consumption would sky rocket as people flitted about in planes, trains and automobiles.
      The list goes on!

  5. “If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14% for the total global footprint by 2040, ”
    Well, if the professor gig doesn’t work out for him, he’s got all the makings of a climate researcher or economist.

  6. Does his “Total Sustainability and Management” course teach them that they are all hypocrites, and should instead be shivering in dark, unheatead mud huts eating twigs and berries? Thought not.

  7. “Smartphones and massive data centers harm the environment”????
    Sounds like environmentalists will have to be going back to tomato cans on strings for communications.

    • Bob Tisdale
      March 2, 2018 at 10:34 am
      I would have thought that biofueled smoke signals would have been a more sustainable option. And most respectful of the past heritage of North America. No nasty mining/smelting of metals. As long as you don’t mind a bit of PM 2.5 that is.

  8. How sustainable is any major aspect of modern civilization and has been discussed here frequently.
    Clean power is not so clean and at the end of a solar panel’s 30 year life span who pays for and recycles all of the hazardous waste generated by mountains of defunct panels.
    https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/solar-panel-waste-environmental-threat-clean-energy/
    Likewise, what do you do with 150,000 cracked wind turbine blades made out of fiberglass, resin and composites in the United States alone? Where do you put 150,000 blades that vary from 40-82m in length for the longest blades?
    http://notrickszone.com/2017/06/22/2-new-papers-expose-the-environmental-nightmare-of-wind-turbine-blade-disposal/
    http://www.valleymorningstar.com/news/local_news/retiring-worn-out-wind-turbines-could-cost-billions-that-nobody/article_3a81176e-f65d-11e6-b1bb-b70957ccb19f.html

  9. I think bitcoin mining centers are a bigger worry as they don’t actually produce anything …

  10. A lot of the new data centres are being built (or planned) in northern regions such as Iceland, Scandinavia or Canada where there is not only cheaper vast supplies of renewable hydropower and/or geothermal, but the outdoor climate is used for air conditioning and cooling of the data centre by outside air most of the year. Sounds like a win-win to me?
    The advance of the digital age and the internet and/or cell phone is a now the new backbone of commerce and trade and information flow. The internet age is to us now what electricity was to my grandparents, who were all born before the automobile, airplane, radio/TV, etc, and just as electricity was being utilized commercially in a few places around the world. Just think how the world would run now if the internet was switched off, or we no longer had a smart phone at out disposal. Soon, half the worlds population will have been born after the internet age began over 25-30 years ago.
    There are billions of connected devices, but the energy usage per device is relatively small. Sure, it all adds up especially adding in the data centres, but the end cause of the digital revolution makes it a worthwhile enterprise that advances human kind for the better. The ability for any of us to access an internet blog site like WUWT and we all share our thoughts about science and climate issues are proof of the good in that.

    • And in Canada they can use any excess heat to warm a greenhouse to grow pot legally so more money for the data centre owners!! 🙂
      I worked in a small data center (<100k sq ft) and the excess heat was used to heat the garage where everyone parked their cars. Worked great.

  11. Data centers are most likely to use hydro, wind, or other renewables because the energy costs less. Plus the cost of wind and solar power continues it’s significant downward trend each year. And individuals can easily install a solar panel with a microinverter at home to make up for all the power their phones use.
    Cellphones are likely (or at least easily could be) recycled as they are an easy source of the materials for following generations of products.

    • Yes, but the data centres have filters on them that only allow nuclear-powered electrons through. Fossil and renewable electrons are prohibited from entering the data centres.

    • Phillip – correct, those nuclear electrons are the Only ones who can really do any good – all the rest are of low quality.

    • It’s easy to which electrons come from the nuclear plants. They are the radioactive ones.

  12. Article got me thinking about Obama and how he stated on April 15, 2015:
    “Wednesday is Earth Day, a day to appreciate and protect this precious planet we call home. And today, there’s no greater threat to our planet than climate change.”
    Cuz I wondered how the massive new NSA Data Center was built and it wasn’t powered by Windmills and Solar Panels.

  13. So the #ExxonKnew Attorneys General will be suing Apple, Google and Amazon now? That might be fun to watch.

  14. Okay, then – I’ll stick to sending things through the mail, writing letters on paper instead of sending e-mails which somehow vanish after a while, and reading books printed on paper until eternity.
    I was doing that, anyway, so I don’t have any adjustments to make, other than buying more stamps and wondering what is wrong with the fizzy brained people who come up with these things.
    The consolation in this, is that I will probably outlive them because they create a problem that has no solution, when there is no reason to do so. In fact, most of us will likely outlive them.
    On another note, it didn’t snow in my kingdom last night, but the hyperbolic language used by weather services hints that something happened! even if it didn’t do much more than

  15. Harm the environment? Dang I nearly got run over several times by people doing the head bob boogie with their cell phones while driving. Now there is a true provable harm!

    • Distracted driving due to cell phone usage such as texting/talking and surfing the net while driving is now a bigger threat to other motorists than drinking and driving, causing more accidents, damages and accident deaths due to such distracted driving. A huge problem for sure, all basically growing in the last 10-12 years since cell phones really took off especially for data/texting. How do we fix this problem?

  16. And let me add:
    Everything.
    Everything. Gives you cancer.
    Everything.
    Everything. Gives you cancer.
    There’s no cure, there’s no answer

    Everything.
    Everything. Causes Global Warming.
    Everything.
    Everything. Causes Global Warming.
    There’s a cure, and it’s YOUR money

  17. “A smartphone’s chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost.”
    I am delighted that they mention this….because…it goes exactly the same for wind turbines and solar panels.

    • Wind turbines: Neodynium, Samarium by hundreds of kilograms to run the high efficiency magnet. These are not per say precious metals but are even rarer elements called the rare earths. They are also particularly expensive to extract. Their extraction, if improperly done, is also particularly polluting.
      Solar panels: yeah….well ….they are not only silicon made. In order to properly operate, they need rare elements such as germanium, indium, gallium and others. The total worldwide output for Indium is 1200T which is absolutely ridiculous to cover the needs. It is only only used in high efficiency solar panel.
      I should also mention that there is no industrial process able for the moment to recycle solar panel at the end of their lifetime. If such thing would ever be implemented, it would involve likely total fusion of these panels in order to recover some of these trace elements. No need here to explain any further how energy efficient this would be.

    • If silicon was all it took, every window would be a solar collector.
      Please try to learn something for once.

    • @ Rob
      Your first point is moot. Permanent magnet or not, all the wind turbines currently manufactured require obscene quantity of rare-earth elements.
      Concerning solar panels, once again silicon-based technology require also a fair amount of dopant trace elements in order for them to operate with reasonable efficiency. Even amorphous silicon technology requires trace elements.

    • It’s not just the turbines that are an ongoing problem with wind installations. What about the immovable very large concrete base that used an equivalent of six houses worth of concrete? What can be done with the base if the wind farm is shut down?

  18. It’s difficult sorting fact from fiction with new technology power consumption. I don’t know what to make of claims that mining crypto currencies uses a quarter of Icelandic electricity

  19. I wonder how much energy that giant black box in Colorado where the NSA records EVERYTHING consumes. But I’m sure it would hurt our national security to know this.

  20. OMG, these people are stupid!
    There are micrograms of gold on the chips and micrograms of rare earths in the LCD. Only the battery’s lithium and Al frame take any energy to produce, but they didn’t even mention them.
    It takes about 10 W-hr a day to operate a phone, a fraction that of a notebook or land-line phone. It’s a super-computer by 10 year-old standards.

  21. “We found that the ICT industry as a whole was growing but it was incremental,” Belkhir explains. “Today it sits at about 1.5%. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14% for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide.”
    See that word “If”? Such a small word to be doing such a big job. Mark Twain had something to say about extrapolation, commenting on how the lower Mississippi had shortened by 242 miles in 176 years he estimated that a million years ago it must have been upward of 1.3 million miles long and that in 742 years it would be a mere mile and three quarters. He concluded: “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” 🙂

  22. Data centers use large amounts of power!
    So does the manufacture of steel, aluminum, glass, concrete, bricks and lots of other essential products that make the world we live in.
    Would I want to live in a world free from the above? No.
    Olden times are interesting to read about and study but not to live in.

  23. Total Sustainability and Management course
    The modern-age basket weaving? No, basket-weaving was at least harmless. This sounds like training for the new S.S. police.

    • ‘Sustainability’ is intended to be the new ‘Global Warming’. It also requires us to pay more taxes, stop using fossil fuels, and have a lower standard of living.

  24. “It’s the energy consumption we don’t see.” Exactly. Same with electric cars and ethanol plants. If all the energy required to build and operate an electric car (including additional mining and refining) is considered, an electric car has the same carbon footprint as a similar car powered by an internal combustion engine. If all the energy required to produce a gallon of ethanol came from ethanol, ie. if all the tractors, trucks, ethanol plants, etc. were powered by ethanol, there wouldn’t be any left over to put in your gas tank.

  25. “Since the late 1950’s, Microwave Radio Frequencies have become the dominant form of communication for TV’s, Cell Phones, Weather Stations, and a host of others uses. Each of these companies having MILLIONS OF SUBSCRIBERS! Satellite transmitters and Earth antennas transmit UHF and higher microwave frequencies all over the planet. Just like a Vacuum tube in old electronic technology, microwaves are insulated by the vacuum of space. Because the vacuum of space acts as an insulator, microwave radio frequencies are scattered through our atmosphere at an accelerated rate. The Earth is a rotating electromagnetic field containing a dielectric material called water. Sending oscillating microwave radio frequencies through an electromagnetic field into a dielectric material, such as water, creates radio frequency heating (also called RF heating) at the molecular level of water. ”
    http://globalmicrowave.org/

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