The invisible and growing ecological footprint of digital technologies – resilience

<pre><pre>The invisible and growing ecological footprint of digital technologies - resilience

The elements of our lifestyle that we are most likely to identify with are inaccessible to any critical discussion. This explains why the popular ecological debate lacks recent research on the effects of digital technology. But 96% of British adults have a mobile device{1} The footprint of digital technology can no longer be ignored. From electronic waste to CO2 emissions, it becomes a life of its own.

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Written for The country magazine, Issue No. 26, 2020

As the author William Gibson said in 1984 about his new buzzword "cyberspace": "There is no" there "."{2}

“Digital people” are decoupled from their ecological footprint in the real world. There is no perceptible connection between the "user" and the base of the "machine" that enables them to occupy the "cyberspace".

Digital technologies give their users organizational and economic power. The smartphone has developed into a hub that enables an advanced stage of consumption around the world. However, the reality of the digital lifestyle is very different from the reality that arises from the daily use of these devices. It is a complex network of technology, networked communication, globalized manufacturing, transport logistics and resource extraction.

Embodied resources

Apple has the most comprehensive manufacturing data{3}: About 80% of the iPhone's 82-pound carbon footprint is spent on manufacturing. and another 17% by the user who charges it – provided the device is used for three years. Discard the phone after 18 months and the impact on production is 90% of the total.

The “use” by the individual makes up only a minimal part of the footprint of digital technologies. At least four fifths of the impact occurs during the manufacture and transportation of the device{4}, However, the energy requirement is not taken into account here if the telephone establishes a connection to the "network".

While the device's power consumption is relatively low because the technology is reaching the limits of miniaturization, data processing is done more over the network than over the phone. This increases the influence of the "system footprint" outside of the user's direct perception{5} – from a hundred or more kilograms a year to well over a ton for intensive use{6},

A total of 4% of global electricity consumption is now accounted for by information technologies{7} and the global data network that connects them{8th},

Rare resources

Up to 70 of the 83 stable chemical elements can be found in a smartphone. It is metals that make smartphones so versatile. Each can contain up to 62 different metals{9},

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The crucial element in all digital technologies are rare earth elements (REEs). REE is a bit of a misnomer since they are not as rare as gold and other metals. The problem is that they exist in very few places on the planet where their concentration – reinforced by natural geological processes – makes mining profitable.

Nevertheless, the mining of REEs for digital and "green" technologies has a significantly toxic ecological footprint (see figure below) {10} {11} {12}).

The mining of cobalt in Africa or lithium in Argentina – key components of lithium-ion batteries – is also involved in slavery{13} and abuse of aboriginal rights{14},

The concentrations of REEs in a phone, weight by weight, are lower than in the rock from which the minerals were made. This makes recycling the “rare” metals from digital technologies difficult. The energy and resource requirements are often greater than the refining of these metals from the raw metal ores.

In contrast, gold, palladium, silver, copper, aluminum and iron make up 99% of the recycling value, although they only make up 13% of the weight of a phone{7} – and this is how the metals are most often recovered. The rest are deposited.

Limits of technology?

According to studies, only 5% of mobile phones are recycled. and of all electronic waste in general{5} It is estimated that only 16% are properly recycled{15},

This means that all digital technologies are subject to the same “growth constraints” that govern human society in general{16} – only the more so as these metals are available{17} is rather limited{18},

This is the major geopolitical problem that technology, including renewable energy technologies, is constraining today:

Bill McKibben said that recently{19}. "If the world ran under the sun, it would not fight for oil", This shows how disjointed many “green” activists are about how renewable energy is generated and why, like digital technologies, it is tied to the consumption of renewable energy generated by global systems of resource use{20},

The reality is that rare earth elements are becoming the “new oil” of the global economy and the conflict is already escalating{21} about their mining and supply{22},

The network and the cloud

Once a "phone" was a phone for voice calls. With an additional screen and slow data communication, it became a mobile computer. What has fundamentally changed the system again is the cloud.{23} – The use of data storage and processing power that happens to be stored on a fast computer network.

The outsourcing of computing power and data storage extends the device with powerful new functions – from voice control to voice translation and maps that guide you on the road. This extends battery life but increases energy consumption as more data flows across the network.

The physical use of a smartphone directly consumes little energy. This takes place against the background of emissions and energy requirements. It is calculated that smartphones will exceed the footprint in 2020 alone{24} of desktops, laptops and displays.

The operation of the global telephone and data network for today's 7 billion mobile phones on earth is estimated at 200 million tons{25} Carbon per year (MteC); Add the digital network that connects all the devices and that goes up to 600MteC{26} – around 4% of global emissions. Recent projections{27} By 2040, this share is expected to increase to 14% per year. Much of it is the result of new data services (also known as the “Internet of Things”).{28}) work over the network.

… and then there is "5G"

What drives these services is the automation of society in general: from ordering a pizza to the "gig economy"{29} All of this requires computing power and a high-capacity network to connect everything together. This is the purpose of the new 5G network, which is to replace the 4G network – less than a decade after its launch.

Earlier generations of cellular networks were more efficient per unit of data delivered. 5G differs from the use of four channels for data transmission. This is faster, but uses more energy for communication{30} – maybe 2 to 3 times more.

5G also requires a lot more base stations. A cell phone base station consumes 1½ house equivalents of electricity over its ten year lifespan. According to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), there are already 40,000 base stations{31} in Britain. According to the NIC, another 25,000 to 60,000 base stations are required for the installation of 5G along the highway alone.

Why on the highway? It is necessary to coordinate self-driving electric cars – which also increases the demand for rare metals and electricity.

The "digital lifestyle" is simply capitalism with a higher planetary impact

This introduction has avoided many problems: from monitoring to health effects{32}, for unregulated data processing, for corporate control.
Rare Earth Metals Tailings Lake Refinery, China

Still, the bottom line is the same. We need to discuss this issue for what it represents: another mechanism of human exploitation based on unfair world trade, property rights, raw material extraction and ecological damage.

The only way to counter the effects of this system is not to participate. or at least not participate in the terms{33} as they are offered{34}, If there is such a thing as “sustainable” technology, it is small and works on a human level{35}, The digital lifestyle no longer offers us that.

Human technology, whether digital or otherwise, is a critical environmental issue that is inextricably linked to the processes of planetary destruction. We will not solve one without solving the other. This requires that we consciously make our own decisions about which and how much we have decided to include this system in our lives – and that we have the freedom to configure and maintain these systems to meet our own needs ,


  1. Statistica: “Use of mobile phones in the United Kingdom (UK) 2005-2018”Of 2019.
  2. Ace Publishing: "Neuromancer"William Gibson, July 1984.
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  6. Guardian Online: "What is the carbon footprint of … with a mobile phone?", Mike Berners-Lee, June 9, 2010.
  7. Financial Times: "Just because it's digital doesn't mean it's green", Izabella Kaminska, March 6, 2019. because-it-s-digital-doesn-t-mean-it-s-green /
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  10. Foreign Policy: Derived from data in the rare earth market: China could determine the future of the high-tech industry by monopolizing the mining of rare earth metals., Lee Simmons & Luke Shuman, July 12, 2016.
  11. Guardian Online: "Rare Earth Mining in China: The Dark Social and Environmental Costs", Jonathan Kaiman, March 20, 2014. –
  12. BBC News: "The dystopian lake filled with the technical pleasure of the world", Tim Maughan, April 2, 2015.
  13. Guardian Online: "Children aged seven years who are used in smartphones have mined cobalt," says Amnesty., Annie Kelly, January 19, 2016.
  14. BBC World Service: "Argentina's" white gold "rush", Assignment, October 20, 2019.
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  16. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute: "Is a global collapse imminent? An updated comparison of growth limits with historical data"Graham Turner, University of Melbourne, August 2014.
  17. New scientist: "Earth's Natural Wealth: An Exam"David Cohen, No. 2605, pages 34-41, May 23, 2007.
  18. Science: "The upcoming Copper Peak", Richard A. Kerr, volume 343, No. 6172, pages 722-724, February 14, 2014.
  19. Guardian Online: "If the world were under the sun, it would not fight for oil", Bill McKibben, September 18, 2019.
  20. European Parliament: "Future metal requirements for photovoltaic cells and wind turbines: Investigation of the potential risk of preventing a switch to renewable energy systems", Directorate-General for Internal Policies, February 2012.
  21. Hague Center for Strategic Studies: "The geopolitics of natural resources for renewable energy technologies", Marjolein de Ridder, August 2013.
  22. Financial Times: Rare earths: Beijing faces a new front in the trade war, Lucy Hornby & Henry Sanderson, June 4, 2019.
  23. Wikipedia: & # 39; Cloud Computing & # 39;,
  24. Magazine for cleaner production: "Assessment of the global footprint of ICT emissions: trends up to 2040 and recommendations", Belkhir & Elmeligi, volume 177, pages 448-463, 2018.
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  26. Layer project: "Climate crisis: the unsustainable use of online videos"Of 2019.
  27. Climate Home News: By 2025, the tsunami of data could consume a fifth of the world's electricity. ", John Vidal, December 11, 2017.
  28. Wikipedia: & # 39; Internet of Things & # 39;,
  29. The conversation: "Why Uber Works is likely to be great for businesses, but not for gig economy workers", Shainaz Firfiray, November 6, 2019.
  30. IEEE Spectrum: "The 5G dilemma: more base stations, more antennas – less energy?", Dexter Johnson, October 3, 2018.öhen
  31. National Infrastructure Commission: "5G infrastructure requirements in the UK", December 2016
  32. Outdoor network: electrosmog,
  33. See: Low-tech Magazine,
  34. See: No-Tech Magazine,
  35. APC / IDRC: "A practical guide to sustainable ICT", Paul Mobbs, 2014.

Photo teaser: By Muntaka Chasant – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0