Visit a conference on carbon footprinting, and you’ll feel more like you’ve walked into a room of accountants than tree-hugging sustainability gurus. But developing an accurate carbon footprint requires exacting attention to detail and precision: tracking each environmental emission, weighing its global warming effect, and rolling the emissions up into one number representing the net impacts from raw material extraction to final disposal.
Take, for instance, the ubiquitous companion of modern existence, the cell phone. Due to their complex supply chains and energy-intensive manufacturing processes, consumer electronics are the most carbon-dense products on the market.
Whether in mining the metals which go into a phone, melting the silicon for making a processor chip, or soldering components onto a circuit board, carbon emissions crop up at each step of the way. The more complicated the manufacturing process, the more energy it typically requires- which is what makes high-tech gadgets such interesting case studies in carbon footprinting.
The impacts from upstream supply chains and manufacturing processes typically account for about half the life cycle impact of a cell phone; the transportation, in-use power consumption, and end-of-life emissions account for the remainder.
High-value electronics items are often shipped via air freight, at significant environmental and economic cost. Switching to slower ocean freight could reduce those impacts by a factor of 30, and using regional manufacturing centers reap the benefits of increased response time and reduced environmental and shipping costs (think of it as “buy local” for electronics).
When we plug our devices into an outlet, that power is drawn from large national grids- creating a demand for power, often provided by fossil fuels. Fortunately, manufacturers are driven to maximize battery life: driving down the carbon footprint of portable electronics products through innovations like LED-backlit displays. Compared with other energy-using products, portable electronics have surprisingly little in-use impacts: 90 percent of the impacts of a car are typically in tailpipe emissions, and 99 percent of the impacts of a house come from power consumption. Even desktop computers, without the requirement of maximizing battery life, are much more energy-hungry than their laptop brethren.
Once our electronics are outdated, broken, or out of style, they leave our hands and move on to the end of their life—whether to reuse, shredding, or informal disposal. While the carbon footprint of electronics disposal may be small, this is only part of the story: other environmental impacts such as pollution and toxic releases make electronics end-of-life one of the hottest topics in sustainability.
A holistic approach to sustainability needs to consider these and other metrics—so while carbon footprinting is a great yardstick with which to begin looking at the impact of a product or service, it needs to be complemented by other ways of assessing and managing sustainability. Life Cycle Assessment is one way of applying the quantitative approach of carbon footprinting to a broader set of environmental and social metrics. And as carbon footprinting and life cycle assessment become integrated into sustainability standards such as LEED and EPEAT, we see these quantitative approaches couched in a robust set of sustainability management guidelines—making sure that we have the tools to both measure and improve our environmental performance.
Your electronics purchases won’t account for the bulk of your carbon footprint—you don’t buy a laptop as often as you buy lunch, and charging your phone doesn’t take as much fuel as gassing up your car—but they’re a great case study in carbon footprinting.