Replacing laptops harms the environment, study shows


Upgrading old laptops is more energy-efficient than purchasing newer, 'greener' models, German scientists said on Monday (1 October).

The German Öko-Institut study showed that the manufacturing part of information and communication technology (ICT) devices, such as notebooks or portable computers, counts for a very large part of the carbon footprint of the product, because the process is highly energy-intensive.

The production phase, with about 56% of the total greenhouse gas emissions of a notebook, casts a significantly higher impact than the use phase, the study showed. More exactly, if the lifetime of a notebook is assumed to be 5 years, 214 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide equivalents arise from its production and 138 kilogrammes or 36% from use.

Other studies even estimate that the contribution of manufacturing to the overall greenhouse gas emissions of a notebook amount to 57–93%.

If a new notebook is 10% more energy-efficient than an old one, the emissions arising from production, distribution and disposal would only pay back after 41 years of use, the report said. However, if the energy efficiency improvement of the new notebook in the use phase is 70%, the amortisation period could shorten to about 13 years.

"It is not environmentally purposeful, with regard to global warming potential, to purchase a new notebook after a period of only a few years, even if the assumed energy efficiency of the new device exploits the full scope of cutting-edge technology," the study says.

Increasing carbon footprint

The tech sector’s own carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase, from 530 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2002 to 1.43 billion in 2020, according to a report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a consortium of leading global ICT companies.

The sustainability of ICT is becoming a greater concern with the sector's emissions now comparable to those of the aviation sector, which have been regulated at EU level.

EU governments have already voluntarily started to adopt national long-term policy strategies for 'greening' information and communication technologies, in a bid to cut carbon emission and save energy.

The European Commission is also looking into the possibility of imposing EU-wide rules on greening ICT.

Green loopholes

Consumers buy new devices every three years, on average, even though the old ones could be updated. This is usually complemented by a high rate of innovation in ICT and the falling prices for new units, causing the lifecycle of the products to be cut "extremely" short, the  Öko-Institut study found.

At the same time, the new notebook models are becoming increasingly energy-efficient in their use phase, which encourages consumers to purchase them. But the study shows that, at the moment, their energy-saving capacity is calculated only for their use period, and does not take into consideration their production phase. 

The existing EU Ecodesign policy for energy-using products has so far also focused only on improving energy efficiency or reducing energy consumption in the use phase. The authors of the report urged EU policymakers to calibrate the Ecodesign rules to the issues affecting ICT throughout the entire produce life cycle.

They suggested a series of measures which could extend the lifetime of the devices, such as:

  • Possibilities of hardware upgrading
  • Modular construction
  • Recycling-friendly design
  • Availability of spare parts
  • Standardisation of components
  • Extension of minimum warranty periods.

“Users place value on long battery life for the mobile use of notebooks. As a result it’s more important to take measures which extend the lifetime of these devices overall and enable a more efficient recovery of raw materials,” said Siddharth Prakash, project leader and an expert on environmentally friendly IT and telecommunications products at  Öko-Institut. 

Another 'hidden' loophole is the fact that portable computers contain a number of scarce raw materials. The yet low recycling rates of these resources, plus their complicated extraction process can pose environmental and social risks.

"Cobalt, for instance, is largely mined today in the Democratic Republic of Congo under dangerous conditions, without sufficient worker safety, and partly by children," the report says.

“Even in a modern technology-based country like Germany these raw materials are largely irretrievably lost for the industrial cycle because of existing inefficiencies in the recycling infrastructure, particularly as regards collection and pre-treatment,” Prakash said.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are becoming a pervasive element of everyday life, with companies and consumers demanding ever-faster information and online systems.

A new problem has emerged as a result - the sustainability of ICT itself is becoming a greater concern with the sector's emissions now comparable to those of the aviation sector, which have been regulated at EU level. 

If no action is taken, the ICT sector’s own carbon dioxide emissions are expected to increase, from 530 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2002 to 1.43 billion in 2020, according to a report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a consortium of leading global ICT companies.

At the same, the report notes that ICT companies can also enable energy savings in other sectors like transport, industry and buildings, with a potential for reducing carbon emissions by 15% by 2020. The European Commission has recognised this, with research in ICTs due to increase by 46% under the EU's seven-year research programme, Horizon 2020.

ICT companies have also taken voluntary measures to reduce their carbon footprint and cut their energy bills. 

The main question policymakers are now asking themselves is whether voluntary actions are enough or whether specific legislation needs to be adopted for the industry.

  • 2014: Commission expected to launch preparatory studies to regulate the environmental footprint and energy efficiency of data centres
  • By 2015: ICT sector expected to reduce its energy consumption by more than 20%


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