Is Your Tech Heating Up the Planet? The Carbon Cost of Connectivity

A simple line drawing of a city emanating from a phone screen. A stack atop a building releases a plume of smoke.

Your cell phone: an apparently harmless device ready to deliver information, insight, and wit at a moment’s notice. Aside from the fact that it seems welded to your hand, what could be bad?

It turns out that technology use contributes to the rise of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The impact of technology on global emissions has increased dramatically in recent years, rising from less than 2% in 2007 to almost 4% today. If you need a benchmark, that’s roughly on par with the emissions of the entire aviation industry.

To make matters worse, that percentage is increasing. It’s currently on track to rise to 14% by 2040 as Information and Communication Technologies (or ICTs) continue to proliferate.

What is an ICT, you ask? Well, how are you reading this article? Yep, that’s it. Your phone, laptop, desktop, and other devices all count as ICTs. The impact of these devices is spread across their lifecycle, from development and production through distribution, use, and finally the product end of life, which varies radically depending on how the device is disposed of.

The carbon impact also derives from content delivered via our devices. The larger the files you share, the more sites you visit, and the greater bandwidth you use, the higher your contribution to global carbon emissions. The good news is that through small changes, we can mitigate our tech carbon footprint.

So what can you do?

Reduce device brightness. The brighter a device, the more energy required to power it. Consider switching devices or apps to dark mode, where available, and reduce the brightness level on your phone or monitor.

Review and update power-saving settings. Check your settings for optimal energy use on all your devices.

Block auto-loading content. Browsing TikTok and other social? Disable auto-playing of videos to save bandwidth, and consider utilizing an ad blocker.

Stop mail before it starts. Speaking of blocking, reducing your inbox volume by blocking and reporting spam is also good for you and the environment. Also, opt out of subscriptions no longer relevant to your needs.

Bookmarks are the best. In addition to saving you time, they help avoid extra searches and page loads. Look for dedicated bookmarking tools to make this a habit and share across devices.

Reconsider saving everything. Storage may be cheap, but data centers are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Clean up old emails, files, and unused accounts regularly and reconsider your storage needs.

Enable the camera only when necessary. Finally! A legitimate justification for hiding out in your PJs during that work Zoom call. Leaving the camera off saves energy. But remember, a video call is still greener than everyone driving to the meeting.

Rethink cryptocurrency. Bitcoin consumes more energy per year than Finland. Yes, the country of Finland.

Resist the upgrade. Do you really need a new phone every year? The longer you use each device, the better. Stick to one device versus maintaining separate phones for work and home.

Recycle! One of the most impactful things you can do is ensuring that your tech is properly taken care of when you’re done with it. Consider donating your devices to extend their life. And when it’s over, look to the manufacturer or other resources for correct disposal or recycling solutions.

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