New research creates a level playing field for personal computer carbon footprints.
The majority of people will understand the more often we replace products, then the greater our personal lifetime carbon footprint will become. Equally, if we are unaware that the items we consume have a higher environmental impact than alternative similar options, then the issue spirals unless action is taken to change our consumer behaviour.
Such changes can be applied to all areas in our lives including the tools we need for work and leisure such as personal computers. In context, this is particularly important as notebooks, tablets and desktop computers generate 1% of all global greenhouse gas emissions . This is caused by manufacturing over 460m new devices each year and the electricity consumed as 4.2bn users accessing and generating digital content .
Today, the average useful lifespan of a personal computer is 5-years  determined by influences such as operating systems becoming unsupported or incompatible with new applications. However, as climate change accelerates hardware manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware that keeping a device for longer periods helps the planet. It’s called displacement and is as simple as enabling a user to buy every 8-years instead of 5-years. As the greenhouse gas emissions generated during manufacture account for over 70% of the device’s total carbon footprint , keeping a device for 3 extra years reduces demand and therefore consumption.
Using simple math, if you own a notebook with a total production impact of 100 kgCO2e then it will either be equal to 20kgCO2e during 5-years of ownership, or 12.5 kgCO2e annually if you keep it for 8-years. As such, you have just reduced the rolling impact by 37.5%.
Obviously when we do replace a computer it would be fantastic to choose one with the lowest carbon footprint. As the largest manufacturers produce documents outlining information such as GHG emissions created by production and use of devices, then surely that sounds like a simple task? Unfortunately, it’s simply not the case. Recent research determines that as major brands use different approaches to represent what are called the ‘use-phase’ emissions created by consuming electricity then no two reports are comparable .
Without parity, a device that is presented to have a lower carbon footprint than another may actually be misleading. The reason is twofold. Firstly, manufacturers include anywhere between 1-year and 6-years worth of use and concomitant GHG emissions depending on how they wish to position a device. Secondly, the reports are created for specific markets such as the USA and Europe. Both regions supply energy via national grids with different carbon intensity caused by the level of renewable energy adoption. As such, similar devices can appear to have a lower carbon footprint if the report is based upon European energy conversion values or US values where electricity remains predominantly produced by fossil fuels.
Maybe that’s confusing but hopefully using a real life example, it will become clear. A desktop computer called Brand A has a published carbon footprint of 197kgCO2e. Another called Brand B has a carbon footprint of 250kgCO2e. Obviously, someone buying a computer based on sustainability criteria will select the first device as they are similar in specification and it apparently generates 21% less emissions. However, the first device emissions value only includes 1-year of use in the report and is written for the European market. The second includes 6-years and is written for the US market. If we change both devices to reflect the same retention period and location, then Brand A reveals itself to actually generate 326kgCO2e of GHG emissions and is now 23% more environmentally impactful than Brand B.
Without knowing this, people trying to do the right thing and buy computers with a lower carbon footprint are in many cases unwittingly selecting products that actually make the 1% emissions problem worse . Beyond a lack of awareness, the reason is that the complexity associated with ‘unpicking’ carbon footprint reports is complex, requires specific experience and usually takes many hours and often days to perform. Considering that global legislation now exists requiring organisations to purchase IT equipment that will contribute to net zero strategies by way of a genuinely low carbon footprint , this is no small issue.
Fortunately, the same research that identifies the problem, also produces a solution for businesses and governments struggling with assessment and selection of devices at scale using sustainability criteria.
Called the Px3 Dynamic Carbon Footprint, the solution is an online application that now completes the recalculation task in real time enabling prospective buyers to select a computer with confidence and on a level playing field.
In fact, the application allows the user to select how many years the device will be kept and where it will be used from either a global, regional or national perspective. It also allows IT and procurement teams to compare devices side by side and whittle down choices. They can rank devices by total carbon footprint, production impact or use-phase efficiency if the focus includes utility cost reduction. Additionally, the tool enables users to produce a carbon footprint report specific to the organisation’s retention and use policy to achieve compliance with the evolving legislation .
Selecting the right device for the job is as important as selecting the lowest carbon footprint devices within a device type, such as a desktop or notebook. The point being that users or IT teams are right to consider if a desktop with an intrinsically high environmental impact is really needed when a tablet with a low impact may suffice.
Leveraging the primary data compiling GHG emissions values from over 70,000 computers , the same research creates average carbon footprint values for end user computing devices used in Europe for 5 years:
- Desktop computer and monitor 757 kgCO2e
- Integrated desktop computer 569 kgCO2e
- Notebook computer 277 kgCO2e
- Tablet computer 129 kgCO2e
What becomes obvious from the averages, is that the difference between the environmental impact of a tablet and a desktop computer with an external display can be considerable. On average this difference is 628 kgCO2e. Whilst that may not immediately resonate as an issue, it’s worth appreciating that this is equivalent to avoiding the same pollution created by 2,287 car miles in a single purchasing decision.
As such, when you next think about buying a computer, consider first what type of device is right for you and then select one with a low carbon footprint as even similar devices will cause very different impacts.
You may be surprised by what you discover and realise that a device isn’t just for the moment, it can also be for the planet.
 Sutton-Parker, J. (2022), ‘Can analytics software measure end user computing electricity consumption?’ Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy. 1618-9558. New York, USA: Springer.
 Sutton-Parker, J. (2022), ‘Quantifying greenhouse gas abatement delivered by alternative computer operating system displacement strategies’. 1877-0509. Procedia Computer Science. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Science Direct, Elsevier B.V.
 Sutton-Parker, J. (2022), ‘Determining the impact of information technology greenhouse gas abatement at the Royal Borough of Kingston and Sutton Council’. 1877-0509. Procedia Computer Science. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Science Direct, Elsevier B.V.
 Sutton-Parker, J. (2022), ‘Is sufficient carbon footprint information available to make sustainability focused computer procurement strategies meaningful?’. 1877-0509. Procedia Computer Science. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Science Direct, Elsevier B.V.
 Sutton-Parker, J. (2020), ‘Quantifying resistance to the diffusion of information technology sustainability practices in the United Kingdom service sector’. Procedia Computer Science. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Science Direct, Elsevier B.V.