How Much Carbon Does Using a Mobile Phone Produce?

So I was at an extinction rebellion meeting yesterday and people were talking about whether reducing personal impacts from living can make a difference. Someone stood up and said that using a mobile phone for a year is equivalent to flying to New York from the UK. I didn’t want to argue with those figures so I’ve come back to do a little bit of research.

The source of this was clearly this Guardian Article and also this New York Times Article. The breakdown from the guardian article is useful but they claim that an hours use of a mobile phone would be equivalent to 1 Tonne of CO2e, which seems inconsistent with their breakdown (more realistic):

Purchase impact

  • Base station 23.1kg
  • Transport before sale 1.6kg
  • Manufacture 6.3kg

Usage impact

  • Switchboard 5.6kg
  • Phone energy 3.2kg
  • Administration 7.1kg

The source of the tonnes of CO2 is from Viessman German Manufacturer who claim it is actually 1.4 tonnes. I thought I’d sensor check that against global CO2 emissions:

According to my calculations if every mobile phone is used for an 1 hour every day we would be producing 1,000 times the total emissions of the world.

  1. I’m pretty annoyed that people can spread this type of nonsense.
  2. I’m intrigued as to whether these claims are correct.

Has anyone got any insights into these which would be helpful?

I think as CO2 needs to become the new currency it’s important we get this right.

On the plus side if your mobile phone is from a company that powers it’s administration, switchboard and network from renewable energy, and you power your mobile phone with renewables the impact would be 0 tCO2 for the running costs. Is that correct?

Help please!

Do you think their calculations take the full purchase impact into account on every hour of usage? It would seem to me that the purchase impact should be shared across every hour of usage over the lifetime of the device, therefore making very little difference to the hourly usage impact?

1 Like

I suppose so… but each phone user will keep their phone for a limited period. I’ve just had the chap from extinction rebellion give his report on this. It’s here:

It seems to me that the building of facilities to support mobile phone (masts etc) are a big contributor, but where they get their energy from isn’t talked about extensively… Again, renewable energy use in this space would make a big difference.

Limited to be honest and tremendously hard to calculate because where do you start, with the user charging or the network operator etc etc. Ecotricity did some research in this area a couple of years back, might be worth checking. It would be very fair to say that we should hold on to our phones longer and upgrade less often.

I was also intrigued by this.

First of all the link can be disregarded because it contains no references or methodology.

The Guardian article refers soley to the book “How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything”. I suspect this to be more rigourously referenced but I don’t own the book so can’t verify this. Regardless, this book was published in 2010 when our use of the internet was very different: the iPhone 3G had been released only 2 years earlier, Netflix only just switched from a DVD rental service to streaming video that year. So this has little relevance to our current usage.

I found a more up to date and better referenced article and report:

The most useful numbers for comparison from this report are in Table 17 (p61) that estimates the emissions from digital technology production and use in Western Europe in 2017 to be 486kg CO2e/person/year. This includes all our digital devices (smartphones, laptops, internet connected devices) and the cloud services that support them, for both the energy to manufacture and energy in use. There is significant variation across the world as the US emits more than twice as much per person at 1027kg and China at 291kg.

Another interesting figure from the report is Appendix 1 (p64) which shows the total GHG emissions from digital consumption accounted for ~3.4% of the world total, with approx. 55% of that being generated in use and 45% from the production of the hardware.

Given that these figures include everything connected to the internet, not just mobile phones and all data traffic in the country (businesses and organisations as well as personal use) the figure of 1.4 tonnes seems rather high. If you completely stopped using your mobile but still watched hours of netflix and youtube at home you might save a bit on the last mile efficiency but you’re still using the rest of the internet with its data centres associated energy consumption. This is not to say we shouldn’t question the proliferation and expansion of mobile networks but comparing personal mobile use with a flight to New York appears to be inaccurate and unhelpful.

1 Like

Thanks! That analysis is awesome :sunglasses:

Found this really interesting report on the carbon abatement from the use of mobile phones. The Carbon Trust shows that mobile phones can be a force for good in changing lifestyles, connecting people so they can shift working patterns, and using technology to help limit release of greenhouse gases (e.g. using mobile phones to regulate heating in the home).

The report indicates that the equivalent emissions to Netherlands has been abated through using this technology.

I think it acts as a strong counter argument that using mobile technology is bad.