Modern communications systems send information across vast distances in massive quantities at breathtaking speeds. Every sector of the economy depends on the capture, access, and rapid transmission of information: from stock market quotes to weather forecasts; from orders for replacement parts for the electricity grid to requisitions for restocking supermarket shelves.
End-use communications devices such as computers, phones, televisions, and radios rely upon behind-the-scenes infrastructures of wires, fiber-optic cables, routers, servers, broadcasting stations and antennae, and cell towers. All of this technology represents embodied energy and requires operational energy.
The operational energy for the U.S. telecommunications system has been estimated to account for over ten percent of the nation’s electricity use. Very little electricity may be required to operate a lightweight laptop computer, for example, but the Internet uses an average of about 5 kWh to support the transmission of every gigabyte of data.
In 2012, the global information, communication, and technology (ICT) industry was estimated to account for about two percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions—about the same as the airline industry—and that number is growing rapidly.
The embodied energy in the world’s end-use devices, cell towers, server farms, data centers, wires, and cables is also large. While operating a smartphone requires less than 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, its embodied energy is estimated to be roughly 278 kWh, or 73 times its annual operational energy requirement.
While it is feasible to produce the electricity to power and re-charge communications devices entirely from renewable sources of energy, much more challenging is substituting the use of fossil fuels for extraction and processing of raw metals, the manufacturing of devices (many parts of which are themselves petroleum by-products), and the packaging and transport of finished products.
How much energy is embodied in the entire global telecommunications system? Unfortunately, calculations are not readily available, but given the decades of energy investment in building it the number is certainly quite large. Further, of the common technological elements within the telecommunications system, those with very high embodied-to-operational energy ratios (hand-held mobile devices including phones and tablets) are the ones most frequently discarded and replaced.
Example: A Smartphone
A typical smartphone starts out as raw minerals and fossil fuels extracted from the earth. Copper, gold, palladium, and silicon were mined, requiring energy in the form of oil to operate heavy machinery and prodigious amounts of fresh water.
The make-up of a typical smartphone is roughly 40% metals, 40% plastics (petrochemicals), and 20% ceramics and other trace materials. Over 60 different types of metals are used in the construction of a typical smartphone, including 16 of the 17 rare earth minerals. While some of these metals are used in very small amounts—for example, the indium tin oxide used to make the phone’s touchscreen—they all have to be mined using heavy equipment or, far too often, human labor.
Over 220 pounds of mine waste are generated to extract just the gold for the circuit board in a typical smartphone. And some of the most essential minerals used in modern electronics—gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum, to name a few—come from so-called conflict areas, where inhumane conditions persist and forced labor is used.
Once mined, these raw resources are then refined and transported to various places in the world. A typical smartphone contains hundreds of components, each of which was individually shaped before being fitted together in an assembly plant—usually located in China.
More than 80% of the lifetime environmental impacts and primary energy demand of the phone occur during the pre-manufacturing (extraction), manufacturing, and distribution phases.
Altogether, far more energy is used in the manufacture of a smartphone (most of it in the form of oil) than will ever be used to operate it. Furthermore, it will likely be kept only a year or two before being replaced with a new model (the United States average smartphone replacement time is 22 months), though the device itself has an average life span of five or more years. Even more than most other computer and telecommunications equipment, smartphones are subject to the marketing strategy of planned obsolescence. Both hardware and software makers profit from rapid product replacement, enticing and eventually forcing customers to upgrade.
The operational energy for the smartphone is electricity. But these devices depend upon data servers, cell phone towers, satellites, and network relays that few users ever see. If all these are taken into account, a typical smartphone is responsible for more operational energy consumption than the refrigerator in your kitchen. The global telecommunications industry uses about 1,500 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, which works out to about ten percent of all electricity consumed.
When a smartphone is replaced, it becomes part of the more than 42 million metric tons of electronic waste generated globally each year. The vast majority of the e-waste generated in the United States is transported via diesel-powered trucks, trains, and ships overseas, where the disassembly and recycling process mostly occurs in countries like India, Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, in communities that are sometimes referred to as “toxic wastelands.”