The Invisible, and Growing Ecological Footprint of Digital Technology by Paul Mobbs

The elements of our lifestyle which we most closely identify with tend to be off-limits to any critical discussion. This is one explanation as to why recent research on the impact of digital technology is missing from the popular ecological debate. But as 96% of British adults have a mobile device{1} the footprint of digital technology can no longer be ignored. From electronic waste to carbon emissions, it’s taking on a life of its own.
As the author William Gibson famously said of his new buzzword, ‘cyberspace’, in 1984, “There is no ‘there’, there.”{2}

‘Digital humans’ are disconnected from their ecological footprint in the real world; there is no perceptible link between the ‘user’ and the footprint of the ‘machine’ which allows them to occupy ‘cyberspace’.

Digital technologies confer on their user organisational and economic power. The smartphone has become a hub that enables an advanced stage of consumerism to exist, spanning the globe. The reality of the digital lifestyle is, however, very different from that which can be perceived from the everyday use of these devices. It is a complex web of technology, networked communications, globalised manufacturing, transport logistics, and resource extraction.

Embodied resources
Apple has the most comprehensive manufacturing data{3}: Roughly 80% of the 82 kilo carbon footprint of the iPhone 11 is expended in manufacturing; and another 17% by the user charging it – assuming that the device is used for three years. Scrap the phone after 18 months and the production impact is nearer 90% of the total.

‘Use’ by the individual represents a minimal part of the footprint of digital technologies; four-fifths or more of the impact comes during production and transport of the device{4}. However, no allowance is made here for the energy demand when the phone connects to ‘the network’.

While the energy used to power the device is quite small, as technology hits the limits of miniaturisation, more data processing takes place across the network rather than inside the phone. This further amplifies the impact of the ‘system footprint’ outside of the user’s direct perception{5} – from hundred or more kilos per year, to well over a tonne for intensive use{6}.

Collectively 4% of the world’s electricity is now consumed by information technologies{7} and the global data network linking them together{8}.

Rare resources
Of the 83 stable chemical elements, up to 70 of them can be found in a smartphone. It is metals which make smartphones so versatile; each may contain up to 62 different metals{9}.

The critical element in all digital technologies are ‘rare earth elements’ (REEs). REE is a bit of a misnomer, as they are not as rare as gold and other metals. The problem is that they only exist in a very few places on the planet where their concentration – enhanced by natural geological processes – makes mining viable.
Even so, the mining of REEs for digital and “green” technologies has a significantly toxic ecological footprint (see diagram below {10} {11} {12}).

Also, the mining of cobalt in Africa or lithium in Argentina – key ingredients if lithium ion batteries – is implicated in slavery{13} and the abuse of indigenous people’s rights{14}.

The concentrations of REEs in a phone, weight for weight, is less than they are in the rock from which the minerals were produced. That makes recycling the ‘rare’ metals from digital technologies difficult. The energy and resources required may often be greater than refining those metals from the raw metal ores.

In contrast gold, palladium, silver, copper, aluminium, and iron, make up 99% of the recycled value despite only being 13% of the weight of a phone{7} – and so are the metals most often reclaimed. The remainder is landfilled.

Limits to technology?
Studies suggest as little as 5% of mobile phones are recycled; and of all electronic waste in general{5} it is estimated that only 16% is properly recycled{15}.

What this means is all digital technologies are subject to the same ‘limits to growth’ issue that govern human society in general{16} – only more so because the availability of these metals{17} is more limited{18}.

This is the greater geopolitical issue limiting technology – including renewable energy technologies – today:

Bill McKibben recently said that{19}, “If the world ran on sun, it wouldn’t fight over oil”. This shows the level of disconnectedness that many ‘green’ campaigners have over how renewable energy is produced and why, like digital technologies, it is locked into the consumption of REEs produced through global systems of resource exploitation{20}.

The reality is that rare earth elements are becoming the “new oil” of the global economy, and conflict is already escalating{21} over their mining and supply{22}.

The ‘network’ & ‘the cloud
Once a ‘phone’ was a phone, for making voice calls. With the addition of a screen and ‘slow’ data communications it became a mobile computer. What has fundamentally changed the system again is ‘the cloud’{23} – the use of data storage and processing power held randomly across a fast computer network.

Out-sourcing processing power and data storage adds powerful new functions to the device – from voice-command control, to language translation, to maps that guide you down the street. This increases battery life, but drives energy consumption as more data flows across the network.

Physically using a smartphone consumes little energy directly. It’s what happens on the back of that which is now driving emissions and energy demand. It is calculated that in 2020 smartphones alone will surpass the footprint{24} of desktops, laptops and displays.

Operating the global phone and data network for today’s 7 billion mobile phones on the planet has been estimated to emit 200 million tonnes{25} of carbon per year (MteC); add the digital network linking all devices, and that rises to 600MteC{26} – roughly 4% of global emissions. Recent projections{27} see that figure rising to 14% per year by 2040, much of that the result of new data services (also called “The Internet of Things”{28}) operating across the network.

…and then there’s ‘5G’
What is driving these services is the automation of society generally: From ordering a pizza, to the ‘gig economy’{29} which delivers it, to using your phone to pay for it – all this requires processing power and a high-capacity network to link everything together. That is the purpose of the new ‘5G’ network which is intended to replace the 4G network – less than a decade after its roll-out began.

Previous generations of cellular networks were more efficient per unit of data delivered. 5G is different as instead of using one channel to deliver data, it uses four. That’s faster, but uses more power to communicate{30} – perhaps 2 to 3 times more.

5G also requires many more base stations. One cellular base station over its ten year life consumes 1½ houses-equivalent of electricity. According to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) there are already 40,000 base stations{31} in Britain. NIC says putting 5G along the motorway alone will require a further 25,000 to 60,000 base stations.

Why along the motorway? It’s required to co-ordinate self-driving electric cars – which also adds demand for rare metals and electricity.

Rare earth metals refinery tailings lake, China

The ‘digital lifestyle’ is simply capitalism with a higher planetary impact

This introduction has skirted many issues: from surveillance, to health impacts{32}, to unregulated data exploitation, to corporate control.

Despite this the conclusion is the same. We have to debate this issue for what it represents: Another mechanism of human exploitation based upon unfair global trade, property rights, resource extraction, and ecological damage.

The only way to counter the impacts of this system is not to take part; or at least, not to take part on the terms{33} as they are offered{34}. If there is such a thing as ‘sustainable’ technology then it is small, and works at human scales{35}. That is not what ‘digital lifestyles’ offer us today. Human technology, digital or otherwise, is a critical ecological issue inseparably tied to the processes of planetary destruction. We will not solve one without solving the other. That requires us to consciously make our own choices over which, and how much we chose to include these system in our lives – and freedom we have to configure and maintain those systems to serve our own needs.


Paul MobbsRamblerActivist/HacktivistAuthorResearcherDeep Ecologist; but none of the subsequent parameters in that list exist without the influence of the first. You can find more of his ideas here
[A version of the above article first appeared in  The Land MagazineIssue no.26, 2020]



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  2. Ace Publishing: ‘Neuromancer’, William Gibson, July 1984.
  3. Apple Inc: ‘Environmental report’.
  4. IEEE Spectrum: ‘Your Phone Costs Energy – Even Before You Turn It On’, Vaclav Smil, 26th April 2016.
  5. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment: ‘Redefining scope: the true environmental impact of smartphones?’, James Suckling & Jacquetta Lee, vol.20 no.8, pp.1181-1196, August 2015.
  6. Guardian On-line: ‘What’s the carbon footprint of… using a mobile phone?’, Mike Berners-Lee, 9th June 2010.
  7. Financial Times: ‘Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s green’, Izabella Kaminska, 6th March 2019.
  8. John Wiley & Sons: ‘Embodied Energy of Communication Devices: Modelling Embodied Energy for Communication Devices’, Humar et al., chapter 4 of ‘Green Communications: Principles, Concepts and Practice’, Samdanis et al, (editors), 2015. ISBN 9788-1265-6960-1.
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  10. Foreign Policy: Derived from the data in ‘Rare-Earth Market: By monopolizing the mining of rare-earth metals, China could dictate the future of high-tech’, Lee Simmons & Luke Shuman, 12th July 2016.
  11. Guardian On-line: ‘Rare earth mining in China: the bleak social and environmental costs’, Jonathan Kaiman, 20th March 2014. –
  12. BBC News: ‘The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust’, Tim Maughan, 2nd April 2015.
  13. Guardian On-line: ‘Children as young as seven mining cobalt used in smartphones, says Amnesty’, Annie Kelly, 19th January 2016.
  14. BBC World Service: ‘Argentina’s ‘white gold’ rush’, Assignment, 20th October 2019.
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  16. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute: ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?: An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data’, Graham Turner, University of Melbourne, August 2014.
  17. New Scientist: ‘Earth’s Natural Wealth: An Audit’, David Cohen, no.2605 pp.34-41,, 23rd May 2007.
  18. Science: ‘The Coming Copper Peak’, Richard A. Kerr, vol.343 no.6172 pp.722-724, 14th February 2014.
  19. Guardian On-line: ‘If the world ran on sun, it wouldn’t fight over oil’, Bill McKibben, 18th September 2019.
  20. European Parliament: ‘Future Metal Demand from Photovoltaic Cells and Wind Turbines: Investigating the Potential Risk of Disabling a Shift to Renewable Energy Systems’, Directorate General for Internal Policies, February 2012.
  21. The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies: ‘The Geopolitics of Mineral Resources for Renewable Energy Technologies’, Marjolein de Ridder, August 2013.
  22. Financial Times: ‘Rare earths: Beijing threatens a new front in the trade war’, Lucy Hornby & Henry Sanderson, 4th June 2019.
  23. Wikipedia: ‘Cloud computing’.
  24. Journal of Cleaner Production: ‘Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations’, Belkhir & Elmeligi, vol.177 pp.448-463, 2018.
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  27. Climate Home News: ‘‘Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025’, John Vidal, 11th December 2017.
  28. Wikipedia: ‘Internet of Things’.
  29. The Conversation: ‘Why Uber Works will probably be great for businesses but not for gig economy workers’, Shainaz Firfiray, 6th November 2019.
  30. IEEE Spectrum: ‘The 5G Dilemma: More Base Stations, More Antennas – Less Energy?’, Dexter Johnson, 3rd October 2018.
  31. National Infrastructure Commission: ‘5G Infrastructure Requirements in the UK’, December 2016.
  32. Free Range Network: ‘Electrosmog’.
  33. See: Low-Tech Magazine.
  34. See: No-Tech Magazine.
  35. APC/IDRC: ‘A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT’, Paul Mobbs, 2014.