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Yes, study predicts smartphones to outstrip other information tech for carbon footprint

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“Children must give up mobile phones,” urges a Facebook meme headed “climate emergency” and which shows a group of young people standing behind Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old global climate change activist. 

To support this call, it focuses on the carbon footprint of communication technology. 

The text below the photo reads: “‘Carbon pollution’ from the Information & Communications Industry is set [to] exceed 14% of total GHGE by 2040 – equivalent to those from coal fired power stations.

“And by 2020 the carbon footprint of smartphones alone is set [to] surpass the individual contribution of desktops, laptops and displays.”

GHGE stands for greenhouse gas emissions

Are the claims in the meme correct? No source for the claim was given but we went looking. 

Smartphones, mobile phones and carbon footprint

Not all mobile phones are smartphones. A smartphone has more features - and is costlier - than a mobile phone or a feature phone, as this website explains. 

These could include more processing power and internet capabilities, a touch screen, a high resolution camera and the ability to edit documents on the go.

A carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the activities of a person or entity – such as manufacturing, transport and so on.

The footprint can also include other greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. (See Africa Check’s guide to carbon emissions.)

Smartphone ownership growing

The Pew Research Center gathers information on the worldwide ownership of mobile devices through a series of public surveys. Smartphone ownership is growing rapidly around the world, the US-based non-partisan fact tank says, but not always equally. 

“A median of 76% across 18 advanced economies surveyed have smartphones, compared with a median of only 45% in emerging economies.”

The median is the middle value when all values are placed in ascending or descending order. (See Africa Check’s guide to median, mean and mode.)

Pew’s data on smartphone ownership however only covers people aged 18 and older. Children are not included in their surveys. 

‘More smartphone use equals more carbon’

According to scientists, smartphones’ contribution to carbon emissions comes from both how they are made and how they are used.

The more a person uses their smartphone, the more carbon is produced, according to Mike Berners-Lee, a professor and senior fellow at Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures. He is a leading expert on carbon footprints and author of the 2010 book, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything

In the book, Berners-Lee says a person produces 1,250 kilograms of CO2 a year if they talk on their mobile phone for an hour a day. This is the amount of carbon produced by a person flying one way from London to New York in economy class. (Note: We have asked him if there are newer estimates.)

Lion’s share is from production

But the lion’s share of the carbon footprint from smartphones comes from the mining needed to extract the metals used in the phones, such as palladium, platinum and aluminium.

Dr Lotfi Belkhir is an associate professor of engineering at McMaster University in Canada. In 2018, Belkhir and Ahmed Elmeligi, his co-founder of the startup Healthcare Innovation in NeuroTechnology, or HiNT Inc, published an article in the Journal of Cleaner Production. (Note: you can also read it here in the Conversation Africa.) 

In the article, which is where the meme takes its facts from, the two authors examine computer technologies as sources of carbon emissions, with the contribution of smartphones cited as their “most surprising” finding.

‘Power-hungry’ data centres

On the device side, the manufacturing and replacing of smartphones is the main contributor. 

But there is also the “power-hungry” infrastructure needed to run mobile communications, such as data centres and supporting networks, Belkhir said in another article

Most of these “consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see.”

“For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there’s a data centre making this happen,” Belkhir explains in another article

Claims in meme accurate as per study

Belkhir told Africa Check that meme’s claims as taken from his article were accurate, except for one detail. The 14% emissions are “equivalent to the contribution from the global transportation sector” and not, as the meme suggests, from “coal fired power stations”. 

Conclusion: Study predicts smartphones will have higher carbon footprint than other communication technologies

Urging children to avoid smartphones, a widely-shared meme said this was because of their high carbon footprint. 

The statistics it cited came from a March 2018 study that predicted that smartphones are expected to contribute more to carbon emissions, contrary to what was previously thought.

This is from both their production and operation. But the accuracy of the contribution the study predicts remain to be seen. 

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