At the end of the winter 2014 semester, a student with his Total Sustainability and Management course asked Lotfi Belkhir for advice, "What does software sustainability mean?"
The Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the W Booth School of Engineering has no answers.
Belkhir teaches students to think creatively about tools for sustainability that can be applied to their entrepreneurial projects. But his tools, at the time, were mainly applied to hardware startups, not software.
The student's question sparked Belkhir's latest research into the global information and communications technology (ICT) emissions footprint.
Belkhir, and Ahmed Elmeligi, recent W Booth graduate and co-founder of the startup, Implied (Neurotechnology for Medical Innovation), studied the carbon footprint of consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and desktops as well as data centers and communication networks back in 2005. Their findings were recently published in the 2018 issue of the Journal of Cleaner Production.
Not only did they find that software drives ICT consumption, they also found that ICT has a greater impact on emissions than we thought, and that most emissions come from production and operations.
Belkhir explains:- "We find that the ICT industry in general is growing, but it is on the increase." Today, it's at about 1.5%. If trends continue, ICT will account for 14% of the total global carbon footprint and half of the global transport sector by 2040.
"For every text message, every phone call, every video you upload or download, there's a data center that makes it all happen." Telecom networks and data centers consume a lot of energy to serve you, and most data centers still rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity. It's energy consumption that we don't see.
Of all these devices, trends show that the most environmentally damaging device by 2020 will be the smartphone. While smartphones consume very little energy, 85% of the emissions impact comes from production.
The chips and motherboards of smartphones require maximum energy to produce, as they are made of expensive metals.
Smartphones also have a short lifespan, which will drive further production of new models and a lot of waste.
"Anyone can get a smartphone, and telecom companies are making it easy for people to get a phone every two years." We found that by 2020, smartphones will consume more energy than personal computers and laptops.
Belkire has made policy recommendations based on his findings.
"Communications and data centers are now having to embrace renewable energy. The good news is that Google and Facebook's data centers will use renewable energy. However, a policy is needed so that all data centres can follow suit. Moreover, a two-year subsidy scheme for smartphones is unsustainable.
In his latest study, Belkhir hopes to help students expand their worldview throughout his sustainability and management courses.
When they started the class, many students had no idea what sustainability meant. By the end of the course, their worldview has changed and they realize what they want to do and why they want to do it.
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