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Study claims computers more harmful to planet than airplanes

Researchers say that previously computers were hoped to make the world more efficient and cut carbon costs but, in fact, computing has taken up a greater proportion of global emissions.

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By Joe Morgan via SWNS

Computers put out a higher greenhouse gas emission rate than planes, a shocking study has revealed.

Information and communications technology (ICT) is now believed to fall in the range of 2.1 to 3.9 percent - far greater than the aviation industry which accounts for around 2 percent of global emissions.

British scientists say previous calculations, of 1.8 percent, fell short of accounting for the full life-cycle and supply chain of ICT products and infrastructure.

The study, from Lancaster University, said taking into account energy expended in manufacturing, the carbon cost of using the equipment, and the disposal, means the greenhouse gas emission rate is far higher than first thought.

Researchers say that previously computers were hoped to make the world more efficient and cut carbon costs but, in fact, computing has taken up a greater proportion of global emissions.

This could be partly due to so-called "rebound effects" where increased efficiencies result in increased demand.

“We know that ICT has an ever-growing role in society and brings efficiencies to almost every corner of the global economy," said Professor Mike Berners-Lee, carbon footprint scientist and the brother of World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

"But its relationship to carbon reduction may not be as straightforward as many people assume. Our work tries to shine a bit more light on that important question.”

The researchers say all computing organizations like Microsoft and Apple must have legally binding net-zero targets that also cover their supply chain emissions.

People should also consider prioritizing some computer functions more than others that take up a lot of energy, like bitcoin mining.

The researchers recognize that several of the world’s technology giants have made statements on reducing their climate footprint, however, they argue that many of these pledges are not ambitious enough and industry self-regulation may not be sufficient to bring about the emissions reductions needed to reach net-zero by 2050.

Dr. Kelly Widdicks, a co-author of the study from Lancaster University, said: “Much more needs to be done by the ICT sector to understand and mitigate its footprint, beyond focusing on a transition to renewables and voluntary carbon reduction targets.

"We need a comprehensive evidence base of ICT’s environmental impacts as well as mechanisms to ensure the responsible design of technology that is in line with the Paris Agreement."

The research was published in the journal Patterns.

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