The use of smartphones in the United States and Europe is helping to save more than 180 million tons of carbon emissions a year — an amount greater than the total annual emissions of the Netherlands — according to a new report released this week by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), authored by The Carbon Trust.
The Carbon Trust assessed 60 carbon saving mechanisms across 10 categories, which involved examining a variety of uses of mobile communications technology, from the use of smartphones to machine-to-machine (M2M) connections. The Carbon Trust says the report marks the first time that the actual impact mobile is having today has been quantified in detail.
The largest savings are being seen in the operation of buildings and transportation, the report says, thanks to improvements in areas such as building management and route planning, which has reduced energy and fuel use. Mobile technology also is making a meaningful impact thanks to changes it has enabled in lifestyles and working patterns, as well as on energy infrastructure.
“Mobile is going to have a key role to play in helping to tackle climate change. But the impact the technology is having today is just a fraction of its full potential,” said Andie Stephens, Senior Consultant at the Carbon Trust. “Given the urgency of the challenge the world faces then there is a clear case to accelerate the adoption of the various mechanisms through which mobile can help to cut carbon. It should also help promote green growth in the developing world, helping emerging economies to leapfrog over the need for certain types of high carbon infrastructure.”
The report was based on an international study of 4,000 smartphone users across the U.S., United Kingdom, Spain, South Korea and Mexico, which found that many people are already using their smartphone in a way that helps cut their personal carbon emissions. Of the most common uses of mobile that are contributing to the overall carbon-abatement impact:
- Some 84 percent of smartphone users with cars use satnav apps to plan travel routes more efficiently or avoid traffic.
- In addition, 80 percent of respondents use mobile to work or study from home, avoiding the need to travel.
- Nearly half (49 percent) of those surveyed stated that they purchase digital instead of physical products, such as newspapers, music and books.
Overall, respondents expressed high levels of willingness to adopt new behaviors that could result in even more substantial future reductions.
The Mobile Carbon Impact report also highlighted potential areas for future carbon-emissions reduction from transport. More than half of the car drivers surveyed (55 percent) would consider having a device fitted that would reduce car insurance if they drove in a safer, more environmentally friendly way. 40 percent would consider using a self-driving car in future. And just under half (48 percent) would be more likely to use public transport if they had a mobile app to see precisely when the next service would arrive.
The past decade has seen an explosive growth in mobile technology, The Carbon Trust says. There are now more than 7 billion mobile connections in the world, up from just over 2 billion in 2005. And the technology is transforming how individuals and organizations behave, helping them to do things more productively or efficiently, at the same time as reducing overall environmental impact.
But some of the greatest future potential savings exist in other areas such as agriculture, where mobile communications can help with everything from promoting the use of sustainable farming techniques to using sensors to avoid the excessive application of fertilizer. Mobile communications technology is also helping to unlock a number of the technological advances projected to have a significant future impact on sustainable development that do not exist at scale today, such as smart grids and driverless cars.
The report also projects that the abatement impact from mobile is set to increase by at least 3 times over next 5 years.
Of course, smartphones also are creating a major electronic waste problem, as consumers scramble for the latest and greatest toy Apple, Samsung or one of the other multitude of manufacturers can think up. Most of the more than 1.8 billion mobile phones sold worldwide in 2013 replaced devices that were less than two years old. Nearly a billion of these devices were smartphones. To address this, companies such as Fairphone are redesigning smartphones to be more modular, which allows for swapping out components to repair or upgrade, rather than buying new phones; while service providers such as Sprint are leading with not only smartphone buyback and recycling efforts and finding ways to give old smartphones new life.