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Carbon Trust leads technology heavyweights in collaboration to reduce device emissions

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Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Meta (NASDAQ:META), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Samsung (LSE:SMSN) and Sky (YHD:SKY.L) have joined a newly launched Carbon Trust initiative to measure and reduce the use-phase emissions of connected devices. 

  • A new framework is being developed for measuring, accounting for and reducing the emissions generated by connected devices in use. 
  • Energy consumption by consumer devices is expected to reach 908 TWh in 2025, up from 380 TWh in 2013. 
  • Although it is important to reduce the emissions of connected devices when in use, the sustainability of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector will depend on improvements elsewhere in the value chain. 

Global climate consultancy Carbon Trust has announced that it will lead a global secretariat, involving several leading technology companies, in a project to measure and reduce the emissions associated with the use-phase od connected devices such as mobile phones, laptops and speakers. 

The group plans to develop an accurate baseline for reporting improvements in device energy efficiency, and to create rules that would see electricity consumption paired against renewable energy generation. 

Doing so would help optimise consumers’ energy use while operating their devices, reducing the volume of electricity required and enabling companies to monitor progress and make further improvements over time. 

New members may still join the secretariat for a limited period, with the final specifications expected to be published in 2023. 

According to Hugh Jones, managing director of Carbon Trust, “this product-level approach will provide an open, credible, and united methodology on device data measurement to help drive down use-phase emissions across the sector.”   

The unacknowledged impact of connected devices 

Although the number of connected devices is increasing globally, the quantification of their environmental footprint has proven challenging.

Consumers rarely think of the emissions that may be associated with their devices’ use, while the research available on the subject has followed various methodologies and included different ranges of devices. 

Bearing this caveat in mind, there are some statistics available that paint some picture of the impact connected devices could be having on our planet. 

The Shift Project, a French think tank promoting the transition to a post-carbon economy, estimates that the energy consumption of connected devices will reach 908 TWh per year by 2025, up from 380 TWh in 2013. Its analysis also found that video streaming alone currently emits an annual 300 million tons of CO2. 

A 2018 study in the Journal of Cleaner Production projected that the greenhouse gas emissions from smart phones alone would increase by 730% between 2010 and 2020, while the overall emissions of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector could account for 14% of total global emissions by 2040. 

A more recent 2021 report from the International Energy Agency’s Technology Collaboration Programme on Energy Efficient End-Use Equipment adds its own conclusion that network-connected energy consumption accounted for 3.9% of global electricity demand in 2018, and could increase to 4.1% by 2030. The report specifically calls out the combined use of phones, speakers, laptops and similar home appliances as having consumed 500 TWh of energy in 2020 alone. 

Although these findings risk adding further confusion to the issue, one clear point becomes clear. Connected devices demand significant amounts of electricity which, unless supplied by renewable energy sources, accounts for a significant level of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Understanding the impact of electronics use

The Carbon Trust initiative aims to tackle this problem by addressing the efficiency of connected devices in their use phase, the period in which they are used by their end consumer

Research on which stages of the connected device lifecycle have the worst impact are perhaps even more contradictory than attempts to quantify the overall problem.  

The Carbon Trust cites research to suggest that a device’s use phase accounts for up to 85% of its total carbon footprint, while the previously referenced Journal of Cleaner Production study claims the exact opposite.

According to its authors, the production process of mobile phones is responsible for up to 95% of their carbon footprint, mostly due to both the energy requirements of the manufacturing process and the short average useful lifespan of the end product. 

This highlights where the Carbon Trust project may be lacking, as while it would be useful to gain a better understanding of the emissions associated with the use of connected devices, it could be far more beneficial to address how these items are actually produced. 

Indeed, laptops are already considered one of the most energy efficient home appliances, while existing measures such as the UK’s Eocdesign for Energy-related Products and Energy Information regulations or the US’ voluntary Energy Star certification have been introduced to promote the development and purchase of more energy efficient devices. 

These measures have encouraged the likes of Microsoft to create new technologies that help consumers save energy during their device’s use phase, but are yet to deliver on the sustainable transition elsewhere in the product lifecycle. 

This is made clear by the sustainability reports of the named technology companies. Meta, Samsung and Microsoft have all reported an increase in their total greenhouse gas emissions between 2020 and 2021, largely associated with an increased dependence on data centres and slow progress on reducing supply chain emissions.  

Furthermore, the increasing consumption of electronics, when combined with their short lifecycles and limited repair options, results in a growing volume of electronic waste. According to the World Economic Forum, the world currently produces over 50 million tonnes of electronic waste each year. Without further regulation, this figure could more than double to 120 million tonnes by 2050. 

These issues highlight that, although the Carbon Trust and its partners may have good intentions in their efforts to shed light on and reduce the impact of using connected devices, the sustainable transition of the ICT sector as a whole will require more concrete action throughout its value chain. 

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