COP26 and Computer Sustainability
Although some of the ‘tech for our planet’ solutions proposed at COP26 involved the use of computers with their ability to collect and analyse data the direct effect of those machines on the environment was not on the agenda. Electronic waste is becoming an increasing problem. 53.6 million metric tonnes were generated globally in 2019 and this is expected to reach 74 million metric tonnes by 2030. There is evidence that the growth of processing power forecast by Moore’s law is slowing but there is still an increasing capacity in computer processing potential. This encourages a ‘Red Queen Effect’ as seen in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. The computing industry has to keep moving just to stay in the same place.
A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.
To keep up computer solutions will need to replace hardware either in-house or indirectly as cloud services update themselves. This leaves the problem of what happens to the existing systems. There is some potential to cascade hardware to other users but the hardware industry cannot assume that there is a ready source of secondary market users who are looking for older, cheaper computing solutions. Modern software is unlikely to perform well on older hardware and operating systems. Even when the hardware is adequate for the new user the industry is simply kicking the can down the road. Apart from a limited collector’s market the bulk of computing hardware will eventually end up in landfill. Exporting redundant systems to developing countries only increases the chance that the same hardware will end up as landfill in locations where the infrastructure to recover some of their components is less developed.
Recovering rare metals from mobile phones is an established business model. These items also include toxic elements that need to be carefully disposed of. The churn of new devices with improved capabilities is creating significant volumes of unwanted models to dispose of and drawing on our limited resources of rare elements. Older smartphones can no longer upgrade their operating systems which will impact upon the Apps that they can run. Improved capabilities such as better cameras also drive replacement device sales. Responsible users need to beware of contract offers that push replacement phones with ‘new device envy’ and instead aim to drag the maximum lifespan from their existing machines.
There are easy wins through the design of new devices. Computing units can be made with reduced footprints. Solid state drives and more efficient processors reduce the need for bulky cooling systems and the related power demands of the unit. Smaller size also reduces the volume of waste and encourages the choice of re-useable components such as an Aluminium rather that plastic outer case. It also leads to savings in packing and transport costs; offering benefits to the producer as well as the planet. A bigger ask is that the manufacturers make basic units easy to repair and upgrade. This has always been the case with traditional desktop units where almost every component was replaceable as long the motherboard form factor (where the connections are exposed to the user) remains constant. Upgrading is harder with laptops where the motherboard is closely fitted to the case and worse still with phones and tablets which are rarely designed to come apart. Various consumer devices such as doorbell cameras and washing machines are a law unto themselves.
Our problem is not confined to issues of production and disposal. There is an energy cost in running computer systems. For an individual system this is relatively low but modern solutions can have very high processing and consequently power demands. We have already discussed the high power demands of Blockchain systems. In this context it is hard to understand the thinking behind the ‘Blockchain for Climate Foundation’ . A program that has the laudable aim to ease the exchange of data on carbon emissions. Why choose to run such a system on Ethereum? A Blockchain technology that has significantly higher energy demands than traditional client server solutions.
It is foolish to discuss the sustainability of computers without applauding their many benefits to the planet. Savings in paper and ink as many documents can be viewed and distributed on-line. A reduced need to travel as discussions can be held virtually rather than in person. The many projects where the data collection and processing power of computers has led to more efficient results. They can however fulfil those same roles while minimising their impact on the environment.