The Cost of Con­ve­nience

Within the span of a mere decade since the pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of smart­phones, a stag­ger­ing 7.1 bil­lion de­vices have been used and this num­ber continues to grow to­day. We need to change the way we use our mo­bile phones if we dont want to pay a price for con­ven

Asian Geographic - - CONTENTS - Text Ra­jeswari Viki­ra­man and Rachel Kwek

Within the span of a mere decade since the pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of smart­phones, a stag­ger­ing 7.1 bil­lion de­vices have been used and this num­ber continues to grow to­day.

With al­most ev­ery­thing we do to­day emit­ting green­house gases (GHG), it might not be all that sur­pris­ing to know that the pro­duc­tion and us­age of smart­phones leave be­hind a global foot­print - which in­cludes the emis­sion of car­bon as well as the use, de­ple­tion and de­struc­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources. The scale and rate at which this is hap­pen­ing how­ever, is one that should be paid at­ten­tion to.

In 2007, the in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies in­dus­try (ICT), which em­bod­ies com­put­ers, phones, lap­tops and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions struc­tures like satel­lite dishes, routers and data centres, was found to be re­spon­si­ble for about 1.3 per­cent of global green­house gases (GHG). While this fig­ure seems rel­a­tively low, a 2018 study by re­searchers from McMaster Univer­sity in Canada re­vealed that the global foot­print of the ICT in­dus­try is well on its way to be 3.5 per­cent by 2020. If left unchecked, it could po­ten­tially reach 14 per­cent by 2040 the equiv­a­lent of more than half the world­wide emis­sions of the trans­port in­dus­try and this will make the ICT in­dus­try the most en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing tech­nolo­gies.

Con­tribut­ing the most to the car­bon foot­print of the ICT in­dus­try is the gad­get that has brought us much con­ve­nience in our daily lives smart­phones. Orig­i­nat­ing from mo­bile phones whose pri­mary pur­pose was to en­able telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion on the go, the gad­get has un­der­gone a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change and now serves as the all-en­com­pass­ing de­vice to com­mu­ni­cate, store data, ac­cess in­for­ma­tion and make pur­chases among var­i­ous other uses.

The smart­phones myr­iad func­tion­al­i­ties have re­sulted in the heavy de­pen­dence on it, en­cour­ag­ing the pre­dic­tion that by 2020, the car­bon emis­sions con­trib­uted by smart­phones would be 11 per­cent of to­tal emis­sions from the in­dus­try, ex­ceed­ing the in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions of desk­tops, lap­tops and dis­plays. Up from 4 per­cent in 2010, this rep­re­sents a growth from 17 to 125 mega­tons of CO2 per year.

Car­bon emis­sions from smart­phones come from both its use as well as its pro­duc­tion. A re­search in 2014 pre­dicted that by this year, the amount of green­house gases re­leased from recharg­ing smart­phones will be more than 13

By 2020, the car­bon emis­sions con­trib­uted by smart­phones would be 11 per­cent of to­tal emis­sions from the in­dus­try, ex­ceed­ing the in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions of desk­tops, lap­tops and dis­plays.

mega­tons equiv­a­lent to the emis­sions of 1.1 mil­lion cars. This has been at­trib­uted to the coal-fired elec­tric­ity grids in Asia from which al­most half the en­ergy would come from. This may come as a sur­prise to some as car­bon emis­sions pro­duced by recharg­ing mo­bile phones are gen­er­ally thought to be neg­li­gi­ble, more so be­cause smart­phones are in­creas­ingly mar­keted as en­ergy ef­fi­cient over the years.

Nonethe­less, the us­age of smart­phones con­sumes large amounts of en­ergy. A 2013 study found that watch­ing an hour of video on a smart­phone ev­ery week for one year uses about the same amount of en­ergy as two new do­mes­tic fridges; this en­ergy is con­sumed not by the bat­tery but by in­fra­struc­tures known as data centres where a host of back­ground ac­tiv­i­ties take place to en­able smart­phone tasks such as video play­ing. Housing equip­ment that en­ables the use of net­works for calls and wire­less con­nec­tion as well as data stor­age and us­age, the data centres op­er­ate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They con­sume an es­ti­mated 200 ter­awatt hours (TWh) ev­ery year more than the na­tional en­ergy con­sump­tion of Iran. As most of this en­ergy is de­rived from non-re­new­able sources, the un­con­trolled use of smart­phones in­evitably be­comes un­sus­tain­able.

The num­ber of data centres has been de­creas­ing in re­cent years with num­bers set to be 7.2 mil­lion in 2021, down from 8.4 mil­lion in 2017. New re­search has also led to the open­ing of large-scale data centres that place em­pha­sis on en­ergy ef­fi­ciency. Al­though these de­vel­op­ments help to re­duce en­ergy us­age, there are sev­eral chal­lenges in­volved in main­tain­ing, man­ag­ing and im­ple­ment­ing the most ef­fi­cient op­er­at­ing stan­dards in all data centres.

BE­LOW Mo­bile phones that con­tain re­us­able met­als are of­ten thrown away and end up in land­fills.

ABOVE A heap of dis­carded smart­phones

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