PC and TV purchases shape EEE carbon footprint

The rapid proliferation of electronic entertainment and  communication equipment has eclipsed traditional household appliances  like washing machines and refrigerators as the equipment with the  highest residential carbon footprint; apart from heating, hot water and  lighting.

The Norwegian state broadcaster sent a wonderful story on our new study:  a home electronics seller is interviewed, listing the number of TVs his  customers have in a household: in the living room, the kitchen, the  bedroom and each of the kids rooms. He also confirms that these are  replaced frequently. Our study showed that the manufacture of  electronics purchased by Norwegian households causes about 350 kg of CO2  per person and year. Assuming a relatively clean Norwegian or Nordic  electricity mix, this is more than is caused by household appliances.  The development shows a reversal compared to conventional wisdom in  energy analysis: for this equipment, the emissions during manufacturing  are really more important than those during the use phase. And what  energy analysts have previously been labelled the “miscellaneous”  category is now more important than (or of comparable importance with  the relatively dirty EU electricity mix as) what used to be the  big-ticket items: freezers, refrigerators, washing machines,  dishwashers, and electric ovens and ranges. A more detailed summary of  the paper was published in KLIMA andChemical & Engineering News.

The study triggered a number of reactions by Norwegian actors that  were reported by the Norwegian broadcaster. One of the factors we  criticized was the high acquisition rate, suggesting that relatively new  and working equipment is discarded. An environmental organization hence  argued for an extension of the mandatory warranty period to 5 years.   However, most reactions were prompted by the comments of climate policy  professor Jørgen Randers, famous for being a co-author of the seminal “Limits to growth” report. He argued that  there was no point in focusing on PCs and TVs, as there would be little  gain and people want to have those anyway. Instead, he suggested we  should focus our efforts on electric vehicles.

This is what happens in a hectic media day: Randers really missed the  deeper implications of our research. We argue that one reason why  operational energy use went down was the successful policy of the EU to  increase the efficiency and decrease the stand-by losses of energy-using  equipment. Despite of these successes, we see a high carbon footprint  from EEE, electric and electronic equipment. Just now, it is coming from  something else: new consumption of equipment we did not use before,  like computers, home electronics, multiple TV sets. In addition, the  rapid technological obsolescence due to technological improvement drives  the turn-over especially for flat-panel TVs, PCs and mobile phones,  which is also why longer warranties will not help. I do think this  instance demonstrates on a specific case a mechanism that happens more  widely: that we, with our ingenuity, constantly find new ways to  stimulate and satisfy our curiosity which create consumption that comes  in addition to what we had before. Like other stuff, this is made out of  materials using energy to shape it, and it thus causes GHG emissions.  It is a demonstration that efficiency gains and better technology alone  will not be sufficient to save us from climate change.

The work on household electronics was conducted by MSc student  Charlotte Roux under my supervision and I checked, modified and wrote up  the results. It was published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). PhD students Anders Arvesen, Ryan Bright and I just published a discussion of the larger mechanisms counteracting climate mitigation efforts, based on reading in a PhD course.

And by the way, I learned today that our Carbon Footprint of Nations  study from 2009 was still among the top downloaded papers in ES&T in  the third quarter of 2001. We are being cited in about 25 other  articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.