Walk on any soft surface and you leave behind a footprint. Sometimes this can look beautiful, like the first step into fresh snow or leaving a trail of marks along a beach (a beach? What’s a beach? Oh yeah, those sandy things we used to get to visit way back in the before times).
Throughout our lives, the actions we take also leave a metaphorical footprint on the environment. Unfortunately this is far less pretty than those we make in snow or sand. The carbon emissions we are responsible for generating through our possessions and behaviour are known as our carbon footprint – and our carbon footprints contribute to climate change.
What does carbon footprint mean?
Carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by something, whether a person, a company, an event or product, expressed as carbon dioxide or CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e).
Every electronic device you own, including the mobile phone you’re probably reading this on, contributes to your carbon footprint. And thanks to some pretty detailed research by academics, we know roughly what that figure is. We also know ways to reduce it. Read on to learn more about the CO2 emissions of your smartphone as well as simple steps you can take to cut down energy consumption without having to reduce phone usage – and contribute less to global emissions in the process.
The carbon footprint of smartphones
Let’s start with the scary stats about global emissions linked to smartphones.
According to researchers from McMaster University in Canada, the carbon emissions linked to smartphone use have grown so much that they now dwarf the emissions contributed by PCs or laptops. The actual figures? They’ve gone from 17 megatons of CO2e per year to 125 megatons of CO2e per year. That’s an increase of 730%.
Carbon footprint guru Mike Berners-Lee knows the carbon footprint of everything. Literally. He wrote the book How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything. In the latest edition, he shares some equally eye-popping research. Berners-Lee writes that in 2020, there were 7.7 billion mobile phones in use, with a footprint of roughly 580 million tonnes of CO2e. This equates to approximately 1% of all global emissions – but the figure is set to rise further as more people get smartphones.
Your mobile phone carbon footprint
But how much of those huge numbers are our individual mobile phones responsible for?
Handily, Berners-Lee has done the calculations for us, taking into account the manufacturing process, the networks and data centres that smartphones connect to and the electricity they use.
Use your mobile phone for an hour a day? 63kg CO2e a year
Use your mobile phone for 195 minutes a day (about average)? 69kg CO2e a year
Use your mobile phone 10 hours a day? 86kg CO2e a year
Everything we do with our smartphones means an increase in these numbers – and a greater impact on the environment. Ready for another crazy stat? In the course of his research, University of East London engineer Rabih Bashroush worked out that the five billion streams racked up by the video for Despacito by Justin Bieber featuring Louis Fonsi consumed over 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic consume together in a single year.
Yes, you read that correctly. The amount of electricity guzzled by five billion streams of a single Justin Bieber video comes to more than the amount used by five entire countries for a year.
Let’s just take a minute to let that sink in.
Where most carbon emissions are generated
As much as it’s tempting to blame beliebers for the problem, the majority of carbon emissions linked to mobile phones are, however, generated during manufacturing, not in streaming pop videos. This is in large part because smartphones require precious metals and earths such as gold, tungsten and cobalt, that are specially mined – and mining is a carbon-intensive process.
We can see just how much of the carbon footprint comes from manufacturing by taking a look at figures released by Apple for the iPhone range. As part of its environmental policies, Apple shares analysis of the carbon emissions of all models of iPhone across their lifetime. For every single iPhone, from the iPhone 5 to the latest addition, the iPhone 12, most of the carbon emissions occur during production.
|iPhone model||CO2 emissions||Production||Transport||Usage||Recycling|
|Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max||86kg||82%||2%||15%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 12 Pro||82kg||86%||2%||11%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 12||70kg||83%||2%||14%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 12 Mini||64kg||85%||2%||12%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen)||57kg||84%||3%||12%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 11 Pro Max||86kg||78%||3%||18%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 11 Pro||80kg||83%||3%||13%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone 11||72kg||79%||3%||17%||<1%|
|Apple iPhone XS Max||77kg||79%||3%||17%||1%|
|Apple iPhone XS||70kg||81%||3%||15%||1%|
|Apple iPhone XR||62kg||76%||4%||19%||1%|
|Apple iPhone X||79kg||80%||2%||17%||1%|
|Apple iPhone 8 Plus||68kg||79%||3%||17%||1%|
|Apple iPhone 8||57kg||80%||3%||16%||1%|
|Apple iPhone 7 Plus||67kg||78%||3%||18%||1%|
|Apple iPhone 7||56kg||78%||3%||18%||1%|
The CO2 emissions of iPhones at different stages of the lifecycle: production, transport, usage and recycling
How to reduce the carbon footprint of your phone
Although most of the carbon emissions don’t occur when the smartphone is in your hands, there are ways that you can make a difference to its overall footprint and therefore to the environment.
When it comes to phone usage, the goal is to reduce energy consumption. There are some simple tweaks you can make to use less energy directly and depend less on data centres that consume large amounts of energy handling phone traffic.
Switch your autoplay settings from HD to a lower resolution when a top quality picture isn’t necessary
Stream over wi-fi rather than mobile networks wherever possible
Turn off automatic downloads for apps
Also turn off cloud backups that you don’t need (just make sure your mobile is backing up in at least one place!)
When making a call, go via your mobile network rather than making the call via the internet if you can
However, because most of the carbon emissions occur during manufacturing, the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of your smartphone is by being mindful about the device itself. “We need to think more carefully about our phone’s lifecycles”, says Georgina Wilson-Powell, editor of sustainable living magazine Pebble and author of Is it really green? Everyday eco-dilemmas answered.
How do we do this? “Don’t take an automatic upgrade”, continues Wilson-Powell. Berners-Lee agrees. “It would take 34 years of average use for the footprint of the electricity to use to equal the footprint of the phone itself”, he writes. “So, if you keep your phone for twice as long, you almost halve the total annual footprint”.
Wilson-Powell also suggests opting for a reconditioned model when you need to change mobile phone. This way, you are getting a new-to-you smartphone without the 80-odd percent of carbon emissions associated with production. That’s a far higher figure than you’ll achieve by never making a What’sApp call again.
Get a refurbished mobile phone from reboxed and this CO2 saving is built in, along with the assurances that you associate with buying brand new, such as a 15-month warranty. You also get a plastic-free eco phone case to help you extend the life of your handset. Plus we plant ten trees for every device purchased, which contributes to offsetting those remaining carbon emissions that will occur during the time you are using the phone. It’s better for your pocket – and better for our planet.