What’s The Carbon Footprint Of Using A Mobile Phone?

Do mobile phones have a carbon footprint?  Well they may not look like they consume a lot of power, but surprisingly yes they do.  Green mobile phones are very good in that they have reduced their carbon output through a range of measures.

The carbon footprint of using a non green mobile phone:

47kg CO2e: a year’s typical usage of just under 2 minutes per day

1250kg CO2e: a year’s usage at 1 hour per day

125 million tonnes CO2e: global mobile usage per year

A minute’s mobile-to-mobile chatter comes in at about 57g, about the same as an apple, most of a banana or a very large gulp of beer.  Three minutes has a similar impact to sending a small letter (written on recycled paper) by second-class post.  Mobile phones cause a fairly tiny slice of global emissions, but if you are a chatterbox using your mobile for an hour each day, the total adds up to more than 1 tonne CO2e per year – the equivalent of flying from London to New York, one way, in economy class.

Indeed, the footprint of your mobile phone use is overwhelmingly determined by the simple question of how often you use it.  One estimate for the emissions caused by manufacturing the phone itself is just 16kg CO2e, equivalent to nearly 1kg of beef.  If you include the power it consumes over two typical years (that’s about how long the average phone remains in use, even though most could probably last for 10 years) that figure rises to 22kg

But the footprint of the energy required to transmit your calls across the network is about three times all of this put together, taking us to a best estimate of 94kg CO2e over the life of the phone, or 47kg per year.  This breaks down as follows:

  • Base station 23.1kg
  • Administration 7.1kg
  • Manufacture 6.3kg
  • Switchboard 5.6kg
  • Phone energy 3.2kg
  • Transport before sale 1.6kg

In 2009 there were 2.7 billion mobiles in use: nearly half the world population has got one.  On this basis, mobile calls account for about 125 million tonnes CO2e, which is just over one-quarter of a per cent of global emissions.

If you want to reduce the footprint of your communication habits, texting is a much lower-carbon option. Landlines offer carbon savings, too, because it takes about one-third of the power to transmit a call over a fixed landline network than it does when both callers are on a mobile.

It took a lot of digging to get data for these calculations. In the end I was pleasantly surprised that there is some reasonably sensible looking analysis out there. Nevertheless, now feels like a good time for a reminder that all footprint estimates contain considerable uncertainty – and some more than others.

The data in this article is drawn from How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee. Check it out and get a copy here.