Intelligent Energy

Gadget Guilt: If you're reading this, you're warming the planet

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Our addiction to electronic and digital devices that didn't exist 20 years is pumping out greenhouse gases at an alarming rate, a British study shows.

Environmentalists would gather with torch and pitchfork if industry were to declare it was intentionally overshooting government greenhouse gas reduction targets by a wide margin.

Yet tacitly, consumers are thumbing their collective noses at CO2 goals through the addictive use of home gadgets and gizmos that feeds their infotainment habit.

That’s what the UK-based Energy Saving Trust concludes in its freshly minted report, The Elephant in the Living Room: How our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream.”

To paraphrase its findings: While most of us have at least thought about curtailing the fuel use of cars, we ignore global warming consequences when it comes to listening to Lady Gaga on an iPhone, watching Terminator 3 for the 25th time on our digital screen, or, pray tell, reading SmartPlanet online.

“Our love affair with domestic gadgets and gizmos has to change,” says the report author, Paula Owen. “Not only can people cut their carbon footprint, but they can also bring down their electricity bills considerably.”

EST concludes that rampant growth in consumers’ collection of flat-screen TVs, computers, mobile phones, digital music players and other devices has put British domestically-linked greenhouse gas emissions on pace to fall 20 percent short of the government’s 2020, 34 percent reduction target, assuming electric utilities continue to use the same mix of fossil fuel. Emissions would stand at 43.6 million tons of greenhouse gases, compared to a goal of 36 million tons.

Even if British utilities were to hit a 2020 goal of generating more electricity from renewable sources, consumers’ compulsion to view screens, click mice, tap keypads, swipe touch screens and cram plastic buds in their ears would still put domestic greenhouse gas emissions at 2 percent above the government’s target.

It all paints a grim scenario in the country’s broader CO2 and equivalent picture, considering that domestic use makes up nearly a third (29 percent) of the UK’s greenhouse emissions, and that doesn’t even include personal travel.

Although the study examines the UK, its general premise almost certainly describes a pattern in the rest of the world: Our obsession with devices that for the most part didn’t even exist 20 or 30 years ago is driving up electricity consumption and CO2 emissions through sheer volume, even if manufacturers are improving the energy efficiency of each gadget.

The number of computing and communication devices alone more than doubled between 2004 and 2009 in British homes, from 30 million to 65 million, the report states. British homes owned 3.5 times as many “consumer electronics” devices –TVs, DVD players, set top boxes and the like – in 2009 than they did in 1990, and 40 times more than in 1970. Consumer electronics became the largest electricity consumer in the household by 2005.

The report claims that in the UK, electricity consumption from consumer electronics surged from 12.1 terawatt hours (TWh) in 1990 to 19.9 TWh in 2005 and to 20.8 TWh in 2009. Efficiency improvements will lower the rate of increase, as consumption will increase by 5 percent through 2020 to 21.9 TWh, but CO2 reduction will still miss government targets, the report states.

Home computing consumed 1.3 TWh in 1990, shot to 5.4 TWh by 2005, hit 6.5 TWh in 2009 and will reach 6.9 TWh by 2020.

“Both the technology of home computing and how we use it are changing and developing at a dizzying pace, and looks set to keep doing so,” the report states.  “The trend of convergence means more and more items – games consoles, tablet computers, mobile phones, printers, and even televisions – perform overlapping computing functions. New functionality within existing devices may mean they will need to consume more processing power per unit, and divergence in the form of netbooks, notebooks, tablets, smartphones, e-readers may mean more energy used by chargers.”

Not all sectors of domestic use are rising. Energy efficient replacements to the incandescent bulb have helped drive down domestic lighting consumption from 16.6 TWh in 1999 to 15.8 TWh in 2009, and will continue to lower it to 11.7 TWh in 2020.  Likewise, improvements in refrigeration have pushed consumption down from 16.8 TWh in 1990 to 14.5 in 2009. Refrigeration will plunge to 10.5 TW in 2020.

But oh those computers, phones and TVs.

I’m certainly guilty. I live in Britain, where yesterday I listened to the Pittsburgh Steelers thump the New England Patriots via Internet connected radio all the way from the USA  (I’d pay to view video except the National Football League wants too much money and would probably try to dictate what clothes I wear while watching). But you won’t catch me with an iPod - I ride the designated “quiet” cars on British trains because I can’t stand the tinny sound that leaks out of the ghastly things (go ahead and call me a grumpy old man).

The point is: there’s something in this CO2-ladened infotainment world for all of us.  We’re all flouting greenhouse gas reduction goals. Tonight, as you lean forward towards your 17-inch Mac monitor, or as you lean back on the sofa to watch catch-up versions of Game 6 of the World Series, beware the knock on your front door. It could be the eco warriors.

Images: Top, Wikimedia/Linux insidev2; Bottom, Energy Saving Trust

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure