The environmental cost of iPhone updates

iPhone updates are responsible for almost 5 billion gigabytes (GB) of data being transferred every year. When it comes to CO2, most of the damage lies in the embedded costs of manufacturing the hardware. However, the way you transfer data can have a significant impact.

The most environmentally friendly way to transfer data is by using a wire. A German study found that streaming an hour’s worth of video using fibre optic cable created 2 grams of CO2, whereas using 3G created 90 grams, some 45 times more. WiFi has been found to be about twice as energy intensive as using a wire.

In my last article, I talked about first downloading the update through iTunes using a wire. According to my calculations, downloading 4.7 billion GB of data using this method would cause 326,000 tons of CO2. If on the other hand I downloaded direct to my phone using WiFi this would be 652,000 tons.

There would be some savings. The total environmental cost of using an average laptop for an hour causes about 107 grams of CO2, whereas using a smartphone for an hour causes about 16 grams of CO2. The ‘hardware’ cost for using a wire was 258,000 tons of CO2. If everything was done on a smartphone then the cost was 120,000. (I calculated that downloading 4.7 GB over a wire would take an average of 10 minutes, whereas for Wi-Fi it would be slower at 15 minutes.)

The total ‘wired’ cost was 585,000 tons, whereas the total ‘Wi-Fi’ cost was 772,000. So, even though downloading using a wire was more convoluted, it was the more environmentally friendly option.

Let’s imagine for a moment that all this data was downloaded using 3G. How much would that cost the environment? Using our German study results, it’s 45 times more polluting to transfer data using 3G versus wire. That means instead of 585,000 tons of CO2, we’d be dealing with almost 15 million tons of CO2.

Convenience is dirty. The easy life is hard on the planet. Free costs the earth. What digital designers have done is design out the dirt, designs out the environmental costs, make the pollution invisible. So much has become surface and interface design. We are never meant to see the ‘nuts and bolts’, the way digital things are made, and particularly the way they are disposed of. Digital is a dirty business and the hardware is where much of the dirt lies.

Ten updates a year for the iPhone. Do we really need that many? Why? Part of planned obsolescence. Part of the purpose of these updates is to slowly but surely make our phones unusable, so that we will be forced into buying new phones we don’t really need.

I have an iPhone 8. I have no desire or need to buy another phone again ever. This phone is a good phone and it does everything I need it to do. I’d like to keep it for 20 years. But I won’t be allowed to do that. Because we live in a world where waste is the business model. In the pursuit of short-term profit, everything gets wasted, including the atmosphere, the planet and the future.

Transferring data: convenience versus saving energy
German study highlights carbon footprint of video streaming