Green Gadgets? Not So Much

Research finds that digital technologies contribute to climate change

Energy Star

EPA

Bad news, tech lovers. IT is not so eco-friendly. According to University of Calgary researcher Richard Hawkins, digital technologies are not reducing our environmental footprint, but may in fact be turning us all into polluters.

"It was once assumed that there was little or no material dimension to information technology, thus, it should be clean with minimal environmental impact," says Hawkins. "However, we are finding that reality is much more complicated."

In reality, digital technologies create highly toxic "electronic junk" that fills landfills and uses up large amounts of energy, both during manufacture and everyday use. You could run the world's air transport system off the energy required for IT. And there are even more second-hand, "rebound" environmental effects. Traditional computers at least had the benefit of keeping us at our desks, but these days you can do just about everything from your iPhone or Blackberry. While it's great to work (or play) on the run, mobile devices encourage, well, mobility. The more you move -- in planes, trains, and automobiles -- the bigger the environmental impact.

To become more eco-friendly, companies are now creating "greener IT" products. While the green label is a good selling point, Hawkins warns the steps might not be enough to reduce negative impacts on the environment. "Creating a greener cell phone won't reduce the impact of increased mobility. The real question is, what amount of mobility is sustainable?" And because digital technologies are all around us, the environmental impact of IT is easy to overlook.

Hawkins will present his findings at the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark later this year.