IT and telecommunications – Environmental impacts of information & communication technologies

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are used in many areas of life and the economy today. Shopping online, the electronic processing and storage of data, the management of whole operations – computers, the internet and mobile communication have become commonplace.

From an environmental perspective, however, ICT remain ambivalent in many cases: Many applications – such as the smart management of power grids (so-called smart grids) or the linking of different mobility options – can lead to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and thereby contribute to environmental protection.

At the same time, the production, use and disposal of ICT often involve substantial negative environmental impacts. The products are largely produced in Asia and involve a high energy consumption and high environmental impacts. In Germany, ICT-related power consumption amounted to approx. 55 terawatt hours in 2007 or 10.5 per cent of the country’s total power consumption. The global CO2 emissions of ICT – approx. two per cent – have already reached the level of air transport emissions. According to expert estimations, ICT-related power consumption in Germany will increase by more than 20 per cent by 2020.

The extensive utilization of resources – some of which are scarce – also has a negative effect. Cobalt, neodymium, tantalum, silver, gold – many of these resources are mined under dangerous conditions today, often in countries which do not have appropriate social and environmental protection standards. At the same time extreme environmental burdens caused by improper recycling and disposal (above all in developing and newly industrialising countries) and significant global loss of raw materials during recycling (also in modern industrialised countries like Germany) are daily fare.

Oeko-Institut’s holistic approach

Oeko-Institut conducts research on the different factors to enable an integrated and comprehensive analysis of the environmental impacts of information and communication technologies. The researchers aim, among other things, to identify the opportunities and risks at an early stage, keep the entire life cycle – from resource production to recycling – in view and advise policy makers, industry and consumers in a sound, practice-based and solution-orientated manner. Some Oeko-Institut projects which focus on sustainable information and telecommunication technologies are introduced below.

Promoting sustainable ICT policy in the EU

Saving electricity, promoting recycling, reducing pollution – there are many opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts caused by ICT. In particular high potentials exist in the improvement of resource and energy efficiency. There are also substantial potentials in reducing manufacturing impacts, realizing additional energy savings during the use of IT and recovering scarce resources under appropriate conditions. The following aspects have to be better regulated: optimal product design from an environmental perspective, the substitution of critical metals, harmonization of the methodological basis for determining life-cycle based GHG emissions and measures for extending the life cycle of products and for ensuring social and economic standards in the primary production of the materials.

Policy makers need to provide regulations and incentives for all these areas; Oeko-Institut is developing ideas and strategies for this purpose. The experts always take into account today’s heavily globalized processes, which can only be improved in association with international partners, through EU guidelines or in the form of international agreements. For many years Oeko-Institut has been advising the European Commission as well as European environmental and consumer associations on issues within the framework of the Ecodesign Directive  , which sets minimum environmental standards for energy-using products.

Basis for a “green” ICT policy

One of the declared goals of the EU Commission is to reduce energy consumption and GHG emissions in the IT sector and thereby make a contribution to environmental and climate protection. On its behalf Oeko-Institut is – together with the Technical University of Berlin – identifying and assessing promising methods and standards to determine the GHG and energy footprints of IT and telecommunications products and services. The institute is thereby contributing on a global level to harmonization of the methodological framework for determining the energy consumption and the GHG emissions of ICT products and services in the future.

“Study on the practical application of the new framework methodology for measuring the environmental impact of ICT – cost/benefit analysis (SMART 2012/0064)” project can be found on the EU Commission’s website.

Obsolescence: Strategies against the throw-away production & consumption mentality

Today electrical and electronic equipment are being used and replaced at increasingly shorter intervals. The resulting waste – especially in the case of smartphones, digital cameras and notebooks – has risen sharply in recent years. In addition the primary production of resources, including rare metals, is increasing to enable the new equipment to be manufactured. Under the catchword of “obsolescence” the expert community and the public are discussing the shortened life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment. On behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency a new study by Oeko-Institut analyses what influence this has on the environment and resource consumption and what the policy and technical possibilities are for extending the life cycle of appliances. The goal of the study is to carry out research into the data on the different characteristics of obsolescence on the basis of specific products and thereby strengthen the data basis in order to make appropriate recommendations to policy makers.

More information on the “Influence of the useful life of products on their environmental impact: Creating an information base and developing strategies against ‘obsolescence’” project can be found in the press release of the German Federal Environment Protection Agency (external link)

Energy and resource efficiency of tablet PCs, smartphones etc.

Today many appliances in the consumer electronics sector have a plethora of interconnected functions, e.g. making telephone calls, watching videos, listening to music. In one of its current projects Oeko-Institut is analysing whether and to what degree so-called product convergence actually leads to energy savings and a reduced use of resources. On behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency the project aims to determine possible energy efficiency potentials, to assess the risks of rebound effects, to derive recommendations for consumers and to elaborate advisory services for policy makers on the further development of the Ecodesign Directive are elaborated.

More information on the “Determining and tapping the energy and resource efficiency potential of consumer electronics devices” project can be found here (in German only)

Reducing the environmental impacts of the manufacture of ICT products

On behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency, Oeko-Institut’s experts have tackled the question of when, from the overall perspective of production, use and disposal, it is really worthwhile to replace an old notebook with a new, more energy-efficient one. Their finding was that the environmental impact of manufacturing a notebook is so high that it cannot be counterbalanced in a realistic time period by the increased energy efficiency during its utilization. Assuming an (unrealistic) 70 per cent increase in energy efficiency from one notebook generation to the next, it is only worth replacing an old notebook after 13 years from an environmental perspective. If a new laptop is ten per cent more energy-efficient, it is only worth replacing several decades after purchase for the same reason. Against this background, Oeko-Institut provides different recommended measures for policy makers by means of which the life cycle and useful life of ICT products could be extended.

Results and policy recommendations can be found in the “Timely replacement of a notebook under consideration of environmental aspects” study conducted by Oeko-Institut and Fraunhofer IZM

A comprehensive approach to advising companies

Beyond the optimization of specific products, Oeko-Institut also advises companies on the sustainable design of entire product portfolios. The goal is to show them possible courses of action for improving their whole product range and for optimizing the internal processes of the companies. On this basis companies can then increase their overall sustainability performance in the long term.

Sustainable product design at Deutsche Telekom

Oeko-Institut has developed a comprehensive sustainability matrix for Deutsche Telekom AG. It enables the sustainability of products and services to be assessed and subsequent conclusions to be drawn for their continued strategic development. The “Call & Surf” service, for example, was analysed in detail, as was a speedport W-LAN router.

The matrix incorporates the following criteria in the sustainability assessment: benefits for customers; product factors such as accessibility, life-cycle costs and climate-friendly design; company-specific criteria such as vehicle fleet, production and delivery chain; toxicological issues and cost and innovation issues. The sets of 25 criteria and the 59 precisely defined and measurable indicators were developed using Oeko-Institut’s PROSA methodology (Product Sustainability Assessment) and the Telecommunications Sector Report of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

Further information on the sustainability matrix is available in Oeko-Institut’s 2012 annual report (PDF, p. 12)

Providing assistance with consumer information

If you want to buy a new smartphone or laptop nowadays, you have to choose one from among the wide range of products and a maze of information on their features. Oeko-Institut provides information for those looking for products with, for example, low energy consumption, that are free of hazardous substances and recyclable and/or have other environmental characteristics. The EcoTopTen   consumer platform lists products which have a particularly high standard from an environmental perspective. In terms of ICT products the website provides overviews of PCs and notebooks, screens, televisions and printers. The product criteria and assessments are carried out by the researchers within the scope of the German National Climate Initiative, which is sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

As part of the “Top 100” project Oeko-Institut developed the award criteria for the “Blue Angel” environmental label with the “protects the climate” tagline   – which are also used for ICT products. On its Top 100 website (http://oekotop100.de) Oeko-Institut provides the public with practical guides for buying computers, keyboards, external hard drives and many other consumer goods which fulfil the “Blue Angel” criteria.