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Study projects global carbon footprint from ICT will be equivalent to half of transportation’s current level by 2040

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) from the Information and Communication Industry (ICT) could grow from roughly 1–1.6% in 2007 to exceed 14% of the 2016-level worldwide GHGE by 2040, accounting for more than half of the current relative contribution of the whole transportation sector, according to a new study from McMaster University in Canada.

In a paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Associate Professor Lotfi Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi, a recent grad, assessed the global carbon footprint of the overall ICT industry, including the contribution from the main consumer devices, the data centers and communication networks, and compared it with total worldwide GHGE.

ICT footprint as a percentage of total footprint projected through 2040 using both an exponential and linear fits. Belkhir and Elmeligi (2018) Click to enlarge.

The scope of the study was limited to:

  • Computing devices: desktops, notebooks, LCD displays, CRT displays, smartphones and tablets.

  • Data centers: servers, communication, storage, cooling and power.

  • Communications networks: CPAE (customer premises access equipment), office networks, telecom operator, cooling and power.

All other ICT equipment was out of scope, including TVs, set-top boxes, and printers.

The analysis included both the production and the operational energy of ICT devices, as well as the operational energy for the supporting ICT infrastructure.

As one of the findings, the study highlights the contribution of smart phones and shows that by 2020, the footprint of smart phones alone would surpass the individual contribution of desktops, laptops and displays.

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

—Lotfi Belkhir

Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment will be 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.

The big surprise however in our findings is the disproportionate impact of smart phones by 2020, and its vertiginous growth from 4% in 2010 to 11% in 2020 in relative terms. In absolute terms, the GHGE emissions of smart phones grew from about 17 Mt-CO2-e in 2010 to 125 Mt-CO2-e in 2020, representing a 730% increase in the span of 10 years. This impact is clearly driven by the fact that the production energy makes up 85-95% of its lifecycle annual foot- print, driven by the short average useful life of smart phones of 2 years, which is driven by the telecom membership business model. Clearly this business model, while highly profitable to the smart phone manufacturers and the telecom industry, is unsustainable and quite detrimental to the global efforts in GHGE reductions.

Furthermore, the contribution of the ICT infrastructure makes up the lion share of the overall industry impact, growing from 61% in 2010 to 79% in 2020. Most of that relative growth comes from the data center industry, which as we move increasingly into a digital age, has become the backbone of both the Internet as well as the telecom industry, and grew its contribution to the overall footprint from 33% in 2010 to 45% in 2020. In absolute terms, it shows an almost 3-fold increase from 159 to 495 Mt-CO2-eq in the 10-year span.

Most concerning however is the continued growth of the ICT sector relative to all the other sectors and relative to the total worldwide footprint beyond 2020. Based on our regression fit, the exponential growth has a midpoint of 7.3% annual growth which, if unchecked through 2040, will bring ICT total footprint to amount to about 14% of the total global footprint.

—Belkhir and Elmeligi (2018)

The authors made policy recommendations based on the findings, and specified the top priority as tackling the CO2 footprint of data centers and communications networks.

Next, we address the largest single contributor to GHGE by 2020 among the ICT devices, which is expected to be smartphones. While for the carbon footprint of ICT, infrastructure is primarily driven by its operating electricity consumption, the smart phones footprint on the other hand is primarily driven by its production energy and its short use life of 2 years. The production energy includes both the material extraction from the mining activities as well as the energy consumed during its manufacturing. Mitigating actions that could significantly reduce this inordinate carbon footprint should include at the very least (i) the switching to renewable energy for the manufacturing process, and even more importantly extending the use life of smart phones to 4 or more years.

—Belkhir and Elmeligi (2018)


  • Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi (2018) “Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations” Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 177, Pages 448-463 doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239


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