Smartphones and data centres will be the most damaging information and communications technologies to the environment by 2040, warns a new study.
For the study, the researchers studied the carbon footprint of consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, desktops as well as data centres and communication networks.
Their findings, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, showed ICT has a greater impact on emissions than previously thought and most emissions come from production and operation.
"Today, it sits at about 1.5 percent. If trends continue, ICT will account for as much as 14 percent for the total global footprint by 2040, or about half of the entire transportation sector worldwide," said Lotfi Belkhir, Associate Professor at W Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology, McMaster University, Canada.
"For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there's a data centre making this happen. Telecommunications networks and data centres consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It's the energy consumption we don't see," Belkhir added.
Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment will be smartphones.
While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85 percent of their emissions impact comes from production.
A smartphone's chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost, the study said.
Smartphones also have a short life which drives further production of new models and an extraordinary amount of waste.
"Anyone can acquire a smartphone, and telecommunications companies make it easy for people to acquire a new one every two years. We found that by 2020 the energy consumption of a smartphone is going to be more than that of PCs and laptops," Belkir said.
Belkir has made policy recommendations based on his findings.
"Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit," Belkir said.