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The True Cost of Digital Evolution

Astrid Wynne, Sustainability Manager Aug 28, 2019

Our ever-evolving virtual world is energy hungry, that much we have known for decades. Slightly new to the conversation is the form that this energy takes. With so many of the hyperscalers like Google and Microsoft installing renewable energy sources in their data centres, there is now a focus on the energy “contained” in the hardware. So-called Scope 3 emissions refer to the energy involved in mining raw materials, manufacturing processes and transport, all of which are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. We may be improving the efficiency of the energy running our equipment, but we are still losing when it comes to the hardware that this energy runs on, particularly given how frequently we update it.

A rising tide of energy usage

Manufacturing one tonne of laptops potentially emits 10 tonnes of CO2, which has implications for global warming. This is just one example of the numerous electronic devices which are manufactured every year. For every one of these devices, there is the hidden energy involved in transmitting data and manufacturing the hardware needed to do this.

The share of digital technologies in global greenhouse gas emissions has risen from 2.5% in 2013 to 3.7% today according to a recent report by think tank The Shift Project. This is predicted to rise further, at a rate of 4% per year, which is way beyond previous expectations. In 2015, digital was expected to account for just over 3% of world energy consumption by 2025, which would be just over that of the global air-fleet. Current expectation is that figure will be around 5.5% by 2025, which equates more to the global truck fleet.

If left unchecked, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that carbon emissions from the production and use of electronics will reach 14% of global emissions, one-half that of the total global transport sector today.

A tsunami of electronic waste

If these statistics are startling, the waste created by the digital revolution verges on terrifying. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 50 million tonnes of e-waste produced each year are the equivalent weight of all commercial aircraft ever built. The WEF compares this to the mass of 125,000 jumbo jets, which would take London’s Heathrow Airport up to six months to clear from its runways. By 2050, the volume of e-waste could be 120 million tonnes annually, according to worst case predictions from the United Nations University in Vienna.

Road to nowhere

As e-waste grows, so does our appetite for new electronics. One report estimates that the global consumer electronics market is growing at a rate of 6% per year. By 2024, it will be worth $1.7 trillion. At the same time, the electronics market is becoming more energy and materials intensive to supply. The energy footprint of ICT is increasing by 9% per year according to The Shift Project. Other experts predict that some of the rare earths needed to produce mobile phones will run out within a hundred years at current use rates.

There is huge wasted value in the current approach of buying endless new products and either hoarding or throwing away unwanted electronics. The material value alone is estimated at $62.5 billion (€55 billion), three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines. With raw materials running out and e-waste on the rise, we need to find a way of closing the circle.

Suggested solutions

There are a number of ideas out there for how society can make better use of resources in the digital sector. One is to extend the time period between refreshing devices; repairing when necessary rather than replacing altogether. Another is to “cascade” products from one user who no longer needs them to another with lower digital requirements. Both of these will be familiar to Techbuyer customers, who have been taking this approach to enterprise IT for some time.

Another suggestion is that consumers move towards more cloud-based solutions for applications and storage.  With less functionality, devices should be less material and energy intensive to produce. While this seems sensible, it might take us a long time to get there. For one thing, electronic devices are as much about fashion as they are about substance. For another, the range of competing and overlapping applications on the market make it difficult to streamline a single system for all users.

Finally, reducing the amount of capacity of consumer devices puts even more pressure on the data centre. At the forefront of sustainable energy, the sector will now have to innovate with materials usage as well. Smart decisions on making best use of resources, reusing, redistributing, refurbishing and ultimately recycling will be essential to the ongoing development of the digital world if we are going to make materials last.


Techbuyer is a global leader in the buying, selling and refurbishing of data centre and networking equipment. By refurbishing excess, redundant or used equipment, we are preventing hardware unnecessarily going to landfill, thereby reducing the pressure to turn raw materials into new IT equipment. To find out more about our refurbished equipment, take a look at our website.

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