Why there is no such thing as “green ICT”

This article was originally published at http://archive.eurescom.eu/message/messageNov2010/Is-there-an-Internet-of-Things.asp in November 2008

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) constitute an industry sector of its own that has pervaded all other sectors of our economy having a profound impact on economic, societal and environmental indicators. Today, it has become fashionable to talk about “green ICT”, although most of the discussion merely concentrates on the greenhouse gas emissions, like CO2, related directly or indirectly to the use of ICT. In this article I prefer to use the term more widely and include in the discussion the overall environmental impact, in particular to point out that “green ICT” is a very immature definition, when it comes to environmental sustainability of the sector.The effects of ICT are commonly ordered in first, second and third order effects. The first order effects are directly related to the mere physical existence of ICT and include production, use and end-of-life treatment. The second order effects are related to the application of ICT and include effects leading to optimisation of processes in other sectors (e.g. traffic optimisation), substitution effects (e.g. e-processes that replace traffic) and induction effects (when ICT creates more demand in other sectors). The third order effects are related to the societal changes that ICT brings along. This includes the deep structural change towards a de-materialised economy, the rebound effects, and the increased dependency on a critical infrastructure. The rebound effects include the stimulation of increased demand due to time-saving optimisation (e.g. increased leisure time traffic), the software-induced hardware obsolescence and the miniaturisation paradox, which indicates that hardware is getting cheaper faster than it is getting smaller.

Considering the first-order effects, we must keep in mind the environmental impacts of ICT caused by the material used in the production (e.g. fossil fuels, water, and chemicals), the possible long-term health effects due to chemical exposure during manufacturing, and exposure to toxic materials in ICT arising from recycling. The manufacturing process of semiconductor chips consumes large amounts of ultra-pure water. Major units of ICT equipment are composed of various materials, which, in turn, consist of a wide range of chemicals, elements and heavy metals. Some of these materials, such as platinum, have a high recovery and recycling efficiency (95%), while others cannot be recycled at all (e.g. mercury, arsenic and barium). It is essential to make the shift from simply calculating CO2 emissions of ICT production to evaluating the net impact of the technology life-cycle, including operations and use considerations, as well as end-of-life management.

The environmental impacts of a 2G mobile phone network are dominated by the use phase. On the other hand the production of a desktop PC uses three times the energy this PC will consume in one year, while considering the aggregated environmental impacts, the ratio is 6:1 under Chinese conditions. This statement also points to another environmental weakness of the ICT economy, namely the trend to produce a large part of the global ICT equipment demand in countries with lower environmental constraints during production. This outweighs all efforts we undertake in developed economies to minimise the environmental impact of ICT.

A study by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) from 2004 points out that the projections of the development of environmental indicators are based on many uncertainties caused both by future scenario variation and available data uncertainty. According to this study, the total future energy consumption could increase by 37% on worst-case assumptions, but decrease by 17% on best-case assumptions. The GHG emissions could increase by 32% under worst-case assumptions, but decrease by 29% under best-case assumptions. Similar uncertainties about the environment impact  are concluded for non-recycled municipal solid waste.

Recycling of e-waste pays off in environmental terms due to the materials recovered, saving energy otherwise used for their primary production. However there is a much more profound reason to recover certain materials from e-waste, namely their sparse occurrence on earth. One example is indium (In), a rare chemical element with soft, malleable and easily fusible properties. Its current primary application is to form transparent electrodes from indium tin oxide in liquid crystal displays (LCD). The amount of indium consumed is largely a function of worldwide LCD production, accounting for more than 50% of its worldwide consumption. Based on the current world-wide reserve base of economically-viable indium, it has been estimated that there is only 13 years’ supply of indium left.

Unless we are able at some point in time to write down the whole equation related to environmental sustainability of ICT, we should very cautiously talk about “green ICT”.

References

OECD Workshop on ICTs and Environmental Challenges, http://www.oecd.org/document/15/0,3343,en_2649_34223_40472783_1_1_1_1,00.html

EC, JRC, The Future Impact of ICTs on Environmental Sustainability, IPTS Technical Report EUR 21384, August 2004

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