The carbon cost of laptops
Carbon Emissions Reporting
|No emissions reporting
||Scopes 1 and 2
||Scopes 1, 2 and 3 (best reporting)
|VeryPC, Micropro (iameco)
||MSI, ASUS, Huawei*
||Lenovo (including Fujitsu), Dell, HP, Apple, Acer, Microsoft, Toshiba, Google (Alphabet), Samsung
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.
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 80% 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 above.
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.
The power consumption is largely dependent on what type of processor (CPU) is used in the machine. Our IT team, Open Plan IT, recommend you look out for low power processors such as the Intel Atom which also requires no fan so machines are virtually silent. The 'Thermal Design Power' is what you’re after. It ranges from about 4w for some of the Atoms and VIA processors to over 130w for some of the Pentium D models.
Our favourite website for checking power consumption of consumer electricals easily is Sust-it.
When choosing a lower power machine aim for the best power consumption you can.
Using less energy
The amount of energy a computer uses is dependent on what the computer is doing. If you are playing games with graphics, charging or streaming video, then your processor will be working hard and be using more electricity than if you are just running a word processing program. But even when the machine is just turned on or ‘idle’, it could be using up to 100KW/h. Computers apparently can use energy when connected to the power supply even when turned off, so it’s worth unplugging them at the end of the day or turning them off at the wall. To minimise energy use the advice is to make full use of the computer’s power management tools (found in the Control Panel in Windows operating systems) so that it powers down and ‘hibernates’ when not in use.
Low energy desktop computers
According to VeryPC, the current typical desktop PC on the market consumes an average of around 115 watts. VeryPC make computers that use less than 30 watts. They only make the base units so you’d need to buy a monitor, keyboard and mouse separately.
VeryPC’s BroadLeaf PCs are BFR and PVC free. The basic model for home users, the Broadleaf BL43-H-i530 uses 24 watts when idling and costs about £600. It comes with a five year warranty as standard and comes with Windows operating systems.