ESG (environmental, social, and governance) and digital transformation are megatrends that go hand in hand. Almost all tech giants now have sustainability pledges and plans embedded into their innovation process to align with stakeholder, investor, and consumer expectations.
While the number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices worldwide was forecast to triple from 9.7 billion in 2020 to more than 29 billion in 2030, such growth doesn’t come without an environmental cost. The carbon footprint of smartphones and other electronics devices constitutes 3.7 percent of global greenhouse emissions, and experts claim it will account for up to 14 percent of carbon emissions by 2040. These claims given the rapid adoption of ICT technology worldwide raise concerns and we need to look at how carbon emissions are calculated and managed if we want to prevent such dire consequences.
As stated by Heidi Hemmer, senior vice president of engineering at Verizon, during the 2022 MIT Climate Implications of Computing and Communications workshop:
“When we think about energy inefficiencies, it is common to jump to data centers — but it really starts at the device itself, and the energy that the devices use. Then, we can think about home web routers, distributed networks, data centers, and the hubs. The devices are actually the least energy-efficient out of that.”
An Increasingly Energy-Inefficient Digital World
The average US household has 16 connected devices, ranging from tablets, computers, and cell phones to smart speakers and watches. This number is expected to rise to 35 devices in 2023. Each device generates a significant carbon footprint during manufacturing and consumes significant operational energy over its lifetime.
Creating a smartphone accounts for 85-95 percent of its annual carbon footprint due to the energy-intensive mining and manufacturing that is required to transform over 20 elements into a hand-held electronic device. As the lifespan of a connected device is longer than that of a smartphone, half of its energy consumption and subsequent emissions occur during production, and the other half during use.
Overspecification of Embedded Systems is Neither Sustainable Nor Profitable
Design affects product sustainability in multiple ways. In the past, companies were unaware of the global footprint of their product. They reduced development time by choosing power-hungry processors and high-consuming operating systems that consumed unnecessary energy over the products’ lifetime.
There are a number of well-known, overly powerful product design choices that generate significant carbon footprint and, ironically, negatively impact profitability, such as:
- Linux-based smart thermostats and Android-based audio speakers, where much simpler designs were available
- A lack of low-power considerations – such as power optimization or sleep mode – for devices that are always on
- Overreliance on the Cloud, including remote data centers, for data analytics
Such design decisions are no longer acceptable from an environmental point of view. Overengineering is now understood as wasteful of materials, time, money, and other resources.
Toward Digital Sobriety: From Awareness to Action
While connected devices have dramatically improved the lives of millions of people, they also are unquestionably responsible for a rise in global CO2 emissions. Now that businesses understand the implications of climate change, they are considering and implementing more sustainable designs, which can extend product life and achieve greater resource efficiency.
For example, by reducing the computing power required to operate a device, manufacturers save a considerable amount of energy as they can source smaller electronic components that necessitate less extraction of raw materials. Such power reduction also lowers the total energy needed to power the device over its lifecycle, which further reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
▷ Learn more in Part 2 – Why Green Software is the Key to More Sustainable and Profitable Innovations.