Digital’s hidden cost to the Earth is in its manufacturing

Up to 80% of the total currently measurable CO2 damage to the Earth that is done by a digital device happens during the manufacturing and distribution process. (End of life is not at all well documented and perhaps causes the biggest damage of all.) Here are some CO2 manufacturing costs of digital devices:
Smartphone: 60 kg CO2
Laptop: 300 kg CO2
Data center server: 1-2 metric tons CO2

Manufacturing digital devices is much more intensive and much more polluting than manufacturing most other products. Manufacturing an average Dutch commuter bike that will weigh about 20 kg and is made mostly of steel, will cause 96 kg CO2. A bicycle can last 20 years, whereas you’ll be lucky to get five years of useful life out of a smartphone. So if you depreciate the CO2 across the useful life of a smartphone and a bicycle, per gram to manufacture, a smartphone has a CO2 impact more than 300 times greater than that of a bicycle.

An average smartphone weighs about 160 g, with about 80 of those grams being mined material. To get that 80 grams requires 90 kg of stones, gravel, slag and tailings. So, every gram of smartphone mined material requires an immediate 1.1 kg of waste. The roughly 1 kg of mined material required for a laptop requires 1,200 kg of stones, gravel, slag and tailings. Digital is very hard on the Earth. The mined minerals required for an electric vehicle are four times those required for a traditional vehicle.

A smartphone demands an awful lot of the Earth. To make it can require up to 1,000 materials. Just one of those materials is lithium. The IEA forecasts that by 2040 demand for lithium will have increased 42 times relative to 2020 levels. We cannot renewably manufacture our way out of the climate crisis. We don’t have an energy production problem. We have an energy consumption one. We must reduce consumption. There is no such thing as ‘green’ technology. There is just dirty and less dirty.

To make a typical smartphone requires about 13,000 liters of water. If that phone is kept for three years, then it’s drinking 12 liters a day just to cover the manufacturing water costs. Water scarcity is a huge and growing issue around the world.

These manufacturing costs are currently almost entirely ignored. Data centers greenwash away about how they have become more efficient in their use of electricity. Much of this ‘efficiency’ is achieved by churning through servers and other equipment at truly frightening speeds. The life cycle of a data center server is often just two or three years, after which many of them are physical trashed (I kid you not) for ‘security’ reasons. Data centers have also improved electrical ‘efficiency’ by switching from air conditioning to water cooling systems. Data centers now have an enormous thirst for water, which they pollute and make undrinkable.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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