I have a love/hate relationship with mobile phones. On the one hand, I couldn’t live without my phone. Firstly, I don’t have a landline (does anyone under the age of 70?) and being extroverted, I don’t survive well without human contact (as was noted during lockdown 2020). Secondly, have you tried using a Melways to find your way around? Bloody nightmare! I tested this theory a few years ago when I was still using a flip phone whilst the entire world had moved onto smartphones. I love the convenience of having all the information at my fingertips to check regular daily occurrences like the weather, the pollen count, a recipe, a delivery or the Wikipedia pages of the entire cast of Umbrella Academy. It’s the place where I store all my memories and documents. It’s how I pay my bills, do my banking and most of my shopping. I use it to read or listen to novels, its the source of my music and my connection to the outside world and often where I write this blog.
On the other hand, I hate what phones are doing to society, I hate how they suck us in and pull us away from the things in life that are really important. I hate that they are diminishing self esteem and self worth, and contributing to anxiety and depression. I hate that they are stifling creativity and killing boredom (many great things are born from being bored). This year, during lockdown, I’ve been focusing on putting my phone down and away for the most part of the day at an attempt to stay more present. And I removed the social media apps from my phone – they’re like an all time consuming vortex – in my head I’ve been scrolling for 5 minutes, by the clock it’s been more like 30.
But that was more to keep my mental health in check. I’d never really stopped to think, ‘how is my phone usage affecting my carbon footprint?’ until an ad popped up for a carbon neutral phone plan (no, this is not an endorsement for that company) but it did make me think – this is something I need to audit!
Servers and Data Usage
I found the answer varied across the different articles I looked at, but one critical thing remained the same – the bulk of the CO2 my phone is responsible for is not in it’s manufacture, nor in the energy required to charge it a few times a week. It is in fact from a far less tangible source, one I’d rarely given any thought to – turns out the energy required to keep my phone connected to the internet and use data is where it’s real footprint comes from.
On the lower end of the scale, UK based carbon neutral phone telco, Honest Mobile, states a one minute mobile-to-mobile call produces 57g of CO2, sending a text message produces 0.014g of CO2 and using 1GB of data uses 3kg of CO2. An average user with Honest Mobile generates 315kg of CO2 /year through usage and charging. Using these numbers, on average for the past quarter I’ve used 3.4 GB of data a month, equal to 10.2 kg of CO2, or around 120 kg for the year, made 201 minutes worth of calls, equaling almost 11.5kg of CO2 for the month, or 138kg for the year and sent 434 messages, 6g of CO2 a month, or 82g for the year. Almost 260kg of CO2 in total. And this excludes all the times I was tapped into WiFi.
Two other sources pegged the amount of CO2 as much higher. According to an article published in The Guardian in 2010, it’s estimated that if you use your phone for 1 hour a day (it doesn’t specify if that’s calls or scrolling), it will create 1.25 tonnes of CO2 a year or 3.42 kg/hour. Another article by the New York Post from 2019 claimed it’s around 1.4 tonnes of CO2. Using these worst case scenarios here’s what I figured:
In the past week I’ve used my phone for 11 hours and 50 minutes. If that’s an average week and 1 hour = 3.42 kg of CO2 then my phone causes around 2,134 kg (2.134 tonnes) of CO2 per year. To put that into perspective, when I was working I was travelling around 25,000km per year in my car, which equates to around 3.73 tonnes of CO2. Now, thanks to finishing work and Covid, I’d be lucky to clock 8,000km per year, or, 1.19 tonnes of CO2 – almost half of what my phone uses.
According to Anthropocene Magazine, greenhouse gas emissions from computers, phones, and data centers could grow from about 1 percent of global emissions in 2007 to over 14 percent in 2040. That’s about as much as some of our top offenders, like the transport and agriculture/forestry industries. The article also notes that the average phone is only used for two years and less than 1 percent of smartphones are sent for recycling. I asked myself where on earth are all the old phones? Do people really throw phones in the bin? Is that a thing? Or does everyone else also have that drawer. The drawer that would make Marie Kondo shudder. The one filled to the brim of every phone they’ve ever owned… just in case.
And according to felix mobile, an Australian carbon neutral telco (under the umbrella of TPG), the mobile towers that support Australian phones emit more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 yearly. In 2017 there were 18.6 million smartphones in Australia meaning, by my calculations as a crude estimate, each phone emits around 54kg of CO2. This is by far the most conservative estimate that, or I’ve completely ballsed the maths.
This all probably doesn’t seem like much, especially if you take in the more conservative estimates, but in a study published in The Journal of Cleaner Production in 2018, emissions caused by smartphones worldwide is estimated to have jumped from 17 megatons of CO2e in 2010 to 125 megatons of CO2e per year in 2020. That’s no surprise given there are more phones than people on the planet – 104 phones for every 100 people.
Text or Instant Message?
This sort of stuff is usually waaaayyyy above my head, but I found an article on You Matter that dumbed it down enough for me to grasp. Instant messages and texts don’t utilise the same technologies. “Whereas SMS use the frequencies of conventional telephony, instant messages and emails use internet data flows. A simple average email emits 4 g of CO2, while an SMS emits 0.014 g of CO2. Regarding instant messages, there’s no concrete data yet that allows its carbon footprint to be predicted. However, since these communications use Internet networks, it’s reasonable to think that their carbon footprint is closer to the one of an email than to an SMS”. But that’s not all – it’s not just the type of message, it’s also about the content. Sending a text message with a photo changes it from an SMS to a MMS where it no longer travels through the same network. As for instant messages, the more data attached, the larger the footprint.
Again, the amount of CO2 varied across the sites I looked at but it ranged from 16 kg of CO2 to 70 kg of CO2 to manufacture a smartphone. Apple seem to be one of the only companies that publish an environmental report card for each of their products. On average, an Apple iPhone creates 70kg of CO2 during the manufacturing process. So, that’s an additional 35kg per year if I’m the same as the average Joe (which I am) and upgrade my phone every two years.
Charging our phones doesn’t actually use that much energy – this Forbes article estimates it’s around 2kW of energy per year (our fridge uses this in a day) and this roughly translates to around 2 kg of CO2.
Unfortunately, giving up my phone is not the panacea to this problem. We live like flies trapped in the world wide web. In order to navigate and belong in this world I need to pay bills with my electronic money, use maps and connect with people. The analog alternatives also come with a carbon footprint (probably higher in some cases) like visiting an actual store (driving, running emissions of the building, logistics required to get the stuff to the store), using a hardcopy book (growing trees, cutting them down, making them into a book, shipping the book to Australia) or watching the news (still connecting to the server and using more energy to run). But, like most things in life, I can probably do it better.
- Yearly my phone is responsible for anywhere between 100kg to 1200kg of CO2, depending on where I get my information.
- On average, I use my phone around 1 hour and 45 minutes a day.
- I’m currently with Vodafone who don’t seem to have any obvious sustainability goals.
- Reduce the overall time I spend mindlessly scrolling or googling (especially time spent on the socials or looking up celebrities)
- Opt for text over call (those who know me know I do this anyway)
- Instigate conversations over text rather than instant message
- Reduce the amount of photos and videos I send – unfortunately this means less meme’ing 😦
- Hold onto my current phone for as long as possible (even though it’s slow and clunky and the camera is completely shithouse)
- When purchasing a new phone, look for an environmentally responsible company – even if this means moving from android to iPhone, which I swore I’d never do
- Change my plan to a carbon neutral telco such as Belong or felix mobile
I get the irony in me writing this post and doing the research carried its own carbon footprint of a few kilograms, but just by existing I’m responsible for a carbon footprint, from the food I consume to the clothes I wear and the way I make my around town. I presume now I have this knowledge, the amount I’ll save by being able to do things better will outweigh the amount I created in gaining that knowledge.