What Impacts Can Electronic Emissions Have on the Environment?

published Apr 12, 2020
1 min read

Electronic Waste & Emissions

The impact of the communication technology industry, from smartphones to smart cars, is substantial but primarily invisible. Yet it’s predicted to snowball in the next decade, with experts claiming it will account for up to 14% of carbon emissions by 2040.

Calculating electronic emissions and their impact on the environment requires a multi-dimensional approach. These emissions can include the electricity used by data centres, the manufacturing of Apple watches or completing a Google search.

Unfortunately, efforts to curb the detrimental effects of the digital world are lagging. Increasing transparency around the energy required to fuel the technology sector will be essential to a more sustainable online universe. Improving compliance requirements for electronic emissions will also play a pivotal role in setting a future green standard.

Data Centres

Data centres are storage facilities that house computer software systems, including servers and other telecommunication equipment. Every search ever performed on the internet needed a server. In the U.S., for instance, data centres require 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — the equivalent yearly output of 34 coal power plants. Because the public does not often see this electricity usage, it’s easy to forget their impact.

The boom of data storage is a significant trend, with expansion happening all across the globe. Due to substantial investment in the information technology sector and the growth of cloud technology, experts predict UK data centres to be worth over $135 billion by 2025.

However, the carbon dioxide output of these centres is equal to that of the entire aviation industry. The rapid growth of this sector will require dedication to innovative technologies that increase sustainability.


The statistics of greenhouse gas emissions from smartphones and other handheld gadgets are staggering. The manufacturing of a single device, including the mining of rare materials, takes as much energy as recharging and using a smartphone for 10 years.

The carbon footprint of electronics, including smartphones, is about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, around 14 ounces of carbon dioxide per person each year. The tricky part of calculating electronic emissions is that we often think of their impact in terms of either their creation and usage. To more accurately estimate the influence of these gadgets, we must consider the whole life cycle of the product.

Electric Cars

Recent studies estimate that battery-powered vehicles could account for 57% of passenger car sales by 2040. Many benefits come with electric cars, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions that cause air pollution. However, they still require a significant amount of energy, even if it is cleaner than gasoline.

Electric vehicles require the use of lithium-ion batteries, which has contributed to a 58% increase in lithium mining in the past decade alone. Manufacturing these cars produces 15% more emissions than gasoline-powered vehicles, but the pollution produced during usage is significantly lower. Ultimately, electronic emissions will depend on the type of energy used in charging the car, which can include renewable energy sources.

The Digital Economy and Its Environmental Impact

The emissions of electronic systems cannot remain at their current rate without serious consequences to the environment. However, many companies today are attempting to curb emissions and improve the sustainability of electronic products.

As global regulations shift, companies can rely on EMC testing to ensure a product does not generate electromagnetic emissions over prescribed limits. As is, however, nearly 50% of products fail EMC testing in the first round.

With innovations in green electronics and electricity sourced from renewable sources, such as solar and hydropower, there is plenty of room for tech innovations to decrease their impact.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability freelance writer. Check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for the latest updates.