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Increasing Carbon Footprint of the ICT Sector

By Savitha Chinnadurai and Kiran Nandavarapu

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission is a major contributor  to global warming. GHG emissions consist of different gases, such as carbon, methane etc., among which carbon accounts for approximately 70%.. An important measure of GHG emissions is the concept of “carbon footprint,” defined as the total amount of carbon and its equivalents present in GHG emissions. Widening carbon footprint is a growing concern across the world as the emissions from different products such as power stations, vehicles and electronic devices are increasing in number and polluting the environment, leading to harmful effects on the human health. (If you are interested in learning more about how our carbon footprint is calculated, refer to our recent white paper.)

According to Gartner estimates, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector accounts for 2% of the overall carbon footprint. Though the number is small, the tremendous growth in the usage of ICT products is expected to push this percentage higher. Specifically, it is currently reported as 0.86 billion tons (2%) and is expected to grow to 4% in FY 2020, especially in developing countries, according to Gartner.

The following image depicts  the share of ICT sector’s carbon emissions:

Share of ICT Sector’s Carbon Emissions

All the devices, detailed in the above chart and  used in the ICT sector emit carbon and its equivalents. The emission takes place at every stage in the product’s lifecycle. The four main processes where carbon and its equivalent emissions take place are:

Manufacturing: Carbon is emitted during the manufacturing process of any product (- servers, UPS, PC, printers, etc) and is commonly termed as embedded carbon. For example, PC and monitors emit close to 40 to 50% of the total lifecycle GHG emissions of a PC. Apart from these, there are emissions from the rare earth metals that are utilized in the ICT products and also contribute to the overall carbon footprint.

Operational and Maintenance: Carbon emission takes place whenever  an electronic device is connected to an electricity source. Both operational and maintenance processes require energy, which is primarily produced from coal and other fossil fuels that generate enormous volumes of carbon emission. Some companies are combating this by using more renewable energy for these processes. However,  this doesn’t completely eliminate  the problem. Components used in generation of renewable energy from sources such as solar power and wind power also produce carbon emissions when they are manufactured.

Disposal:  The electronic devices are are disposed as e-waste that generates huge amount of carbon emissions, at the end of their lifecycle.  It is estimated that around 50 million tons of e-waste is generated annually, including 30 million computers from the USA. and 100 million phones from Europe. The USA and China are considered to be the biggest producers of e-waste, disposing around 3 million tons and 2.5 million tons respectively every year. Investments in newer technology, high demand for ICT products and excess production of ICT products has led to greater e-waste disposal. The consequences of e-waste and its direct and indirect contribution to carbon footprint are also discussed in detail in our white paper.

According to SMART 2020 study, global greenhouse gas emissions will be cut by 15% by using low carbon generating ICT equipment. As product quantities grow and more devices are produced every year, this demands more connections. In 2014, the Internet of Things (IoT) was estimated at 108 million ICT products and it is expected to grow by 23% by 2020. Though IoT products help reduce the overall carbon footprint in other areas such as energy, transportation, built environments and agriculture, they produce a great amount of data that needs storage, which leads to more carbon emissions.

In our next post, we will explore different initiatives and measures taken by various companies, associations and ICT vendors to reduce the overall carbon footprint.

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Savitha Chinnadurai

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