The carbon cost of laptops
The contribution of IT and the electronics sector to climate change is a growing problem, with studies suggesting that the production and use of electronic devices will account for 14% of total greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, which equates to one half of today’s global transport sector.
We rated the companies making desktop PCs for their carbon emissions reporting.
Like the gadgets themselves, the issue is highly complex, with emissions occurring throughout the lifecycle of a product: resource extraction, multiple stages of manufacture, transportation, use and disposal all contribute significantly to the climate impact of a device.
The production stage is often the most significant – for smartphones, this has been estimated to account for 75% of emissions. The complexity of the product means it requires large amounts of energy to manufacture, although the quantities are difficult to measure as a myriad of materials and components need to be processed and assembled by different companies along a huge supply chain
Broadening the scope of reporting
The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol defines a set of standards to assist companies with measuring and tracking their climate impact in real terms by separating emissions sources into three categories known as Scopes.
Scope 1 covers direct emissions produced by a company’s own facilities, while scope 2 accounts for the emissions caused by electricity use of the company.*Reported limited data defined as Scope 3 such as employee travel but did not include supply chain or product-use emissions.
Scope 3 takes into account “all other indirect emissions”, including those produced in the supply chain, product use and disposal as well as other activities such as business travel.
Although much more difficult to measure, Scope 3 emissions generally account for the largest share of a company’s carbon footprint. This is particularly true for electronics manufacturers, where so much energy use occurs outside of each company’s direct control.
Despite this, we found that not all companies we assessed measured and reported on scope 3 emissions. The level of reporting by each company is shown in the table below.
Carbon Emissions Reporting
|Scopes 1 and 2
||Scopes 1,2 and a substantial proportion of 3
||Lenovo, Dell, HP, Apple, Acer, Microsoft, Huawei
Short lifecycles are a driver for climate change
Perhaps the most effective way to limit the climate impact of your gadgets is by extending their life. A 2019 EU report compared the total emissions of ‘use’ and ‘non-use’ phases of their lifecycles. For notebooks, ‘non-use phases’ account for between 40% and 64% of the total Global Warming Potential (GWP), while the same figure for smartphones was between 51% and 92%.
As electricity supplies in some countries move gradually towards renewables, this proportion becomes even greater, particularly as the vast majority of electronics manufacturing takes place in China and other East Asian countries, where coal and other fossil fuels account for the majority of electricity supply.
This means that improvements in energy-efficient design rarely compensate for the impact of production when a device is replaced with a new one, with calculations suggesting that a smartphone may be used for between 25 and 232 years before it becomes environmentally beneficial to replace!
For consumers, this is yet another good reason to repair devices wherever possible, or else to buy second-hand or refurbished products.