Our Tools Have Always Had a Carbon Footprint

Assessing the carbon footprint of ITC equipment is a critical part of Green ICT. Much of a piece of gear's footprint comes from "embodied" carbon - the carbon released during is creation and transportation, before the user ever powers it up. It turns out that this has been true since the Iron Age.

We reviewed some data provided by Apple a few years ago. This showed that as much as two-thirds of a laptop's total carbon footprint was embodied carbon, as opposes to carbon released by its energy consumption. At that time (2011), the total lifecycle carbon footprint of a laptop was 300-700 kg C02e.

This is significant for ICT tools, but humankind's older tools appear to be no better.

Bill Streever gives this account* of an attempt to duplicate Iron Age technology. First, wood is baked into charcoal, a process specifically designed to release as much greenhouse gas as possible. Then the charcoal is used to smelt iron and, finally, to form the tool. "That tool--the result of three days of work, of well over a ton of carbon emissions...is a single spear tip, a few inches long." 900+ kg is serious embodied carbon.

I don't know how many ton-of-CO2e tools were created in the Iron Age. I'm reasonable confident that it was far less than the 18+ billion pieces of ICT gear attached to our global ICT infrastructure - not to mention the tens of billions previously created and discarded. We've reduced the unit carbon footprint by transitioning to ICT tools but have certainly upped the number of units.

Click on the 'ict-footprint' tag, above, for more on the various resource footprints of ICT gear and infrastructures.


* Heat - Adventures in the World's Fiery Places, Chapter 4