Global computer usage produces twice the greenhouse gases as the aviation industry

Global computer usage produces twice the greenhouse gases as the aviation industry, new analysis suggests.

Figures from Lancaster University reveal emissions from computing account for almost four per cent of all greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere, compared to two per cent for air travel.

Previous studies had claimed that computing’s share of global emissions was between 1.8 and 2.8 per cent, however the researchers of the new paper say this was an underestimate.

In their review, they combed through three studies, interviewed the authors and also spoke to experts, and developed a more complete, robust view of the entire information and communications technology (ICT) industry.

The study includes the lifecycle emissions of various devices, including phones, laptops, cameras, smart watches, headphones, games consoles and speakers. It also looked at the carbon footprint of data centres, local networks and television.

Previous estimates did not account for how much energy was required to make computers, the researchers say, as well as failing to account for the carbon footprint of the manufacturers’ supply chains, energy consumption while using the product, and the environmental costs of disposing of computers.

It has been said previously that the technological advances made possible by computing will outweigh the industry’s direct emissions, but the researchers claim this is false.

Climate change over the last 2000 years

And, they warn, emissions from computing are growing as demand continues to increase. Power-hungry processes like Bitcoin mining, for example, require huge amounts of electricity and are responsible for an ever-increasing percentage of global emissions.

“We know that ICT has an ever growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy,” said study co-author Prof Mike Berners-Lee, professor of social futures at Lancaster University, director of Small World Consulting, and brother of Tim, the inventor of the World Wide Web.

“But it’s relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question.”

The academics say that ICT organisations should have legally binding net zero targets and unprecedented coordination is needed to reach the net zero goal by 2050.

They warn that if left unchecked, the current tech-obsessed world will see the ICT industry’s greenhouse gas emissions increase exponentially.

Dr Kelly Widdicks co-author of the study from Lancaster University said: “Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets.

“We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT’s environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in-line with the Paris Agreement.”

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