Most of us in Britain have a smartphone these days, and that’s increasingly true internationally. There are 2.6 billion mobile subscriptions in the world, and while not everyone owns one, an estimated 6 billion people have access to a phone. As the UN noted a couple of years ago, more people have access to a mobile than to a flushing toilet, by some distance.
Much has been written on how mobile phone technology has changed the way we communicate, shop and entertain ourselves. There’s also been quite a lot about the environmental impact of phones, either the mining of resources to make them, or how they are disposed of at the end of their lives. The carbon impact of mobile phones is less known, and I was interested to discover that it may be broadly positive.
According to research by the Carbon Trust, mobile phones create emissions savings in hundreds of different ways across several key categories. The most important is buildings, through building management systems that allow people to control heating, lighting and ventilation remotely. Much of the savings here don’t rely on people doing anything on their phones, but are ‘machine to machine’ connections. Your office knows you’ve gone out and turns off any lights. Or your house gets the weather forecast and turns the heating down automatically. Smart meters also allow people to see energy usage on their phones, and this encourages smarter energy habits.
Transport is another area where mobiles save carbon emissions, and one of the biggest contributions is from people using their phones to avoid traffic. That’s fewer idling cars pumping out CO2 while queuing. Lots of journeys are just no longer necessary. Easy video conferencing reduces the number of visits or business trips that people make, and using online banking saves going down to the local bank branch. Ride-sharing also takes cars off the roads, while sat-navs and mobile navigation apps optimise journeys. Being able to look up trains and buses and see if they’re running on time has made people more likely to use public transport.
I won’t go through all ten categories, but you can look them up in the report if you want more detail. Health monitoring saves patient trips to and from hospital. Farmers can monitor crops and animals, using their phones for more efficient precision farming. Modern phones are also cameras, MP3 players and satnavs, which saves the embedded emissions and energy use of multiple devices. They also displace CDs, newspapers and much else besides.
There are some avenues for emissions savings that we’re only starting out on. Smart cities for example – imagine knowing exactly where a parking place is, and the emissions savings from not having millions of people a day driving around looking for a space. Or street lights that can turn themselves on or off when needed. Smart bins can notify the council when they need to be emptied, rather than the truck driving round and checking. Similarly with vending machines which can order themselves a re-stocking when they run low. Lots and lots of small savings can add up to a large contribution as more and more things are connected.
Add all these savings up, and you presently get 180 million tonnes of CO2 in the US and EU alone – that’s about the same as the carbon footprint of the Netherlands. It’s also five times larger than the emissions from running the mobile network. I can’t tell from the report whether that includes the charging of all those phones, but then you’re using a solar charger, right? If not, get one – and then it’s quite possible that your phone is a carbon positive presence in your life.