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September 8, 2011

Consumer Electronics Outrank Refrigerators As Contributors To Climate Change

Carbon Emissions: Laptops, televisions, and other devices emit more than household appliances do

Sara Peach

HIDDEN EMISSIONS Using a laptop for a year in Norway produces 18 pounds of greenhouse gases, but manufacturing one generates nearly 40 times as much, according to a new study.
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Consumers are hungry for clearer television screens, more powerful laptops, and smarter phones. But because those electronics require a significant amount of energy to manufacture, and because consumers replace them frequently, they are greater contributors to climate change than previously recognized, a new study suggests (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es201459c).

Since the 1980s, conventional wisdom has held that large appliances, such as clothes dryers and refrigerators, are the home's biggest source of greenhouse gases, aside from heating and lighting. But the proliferation of consumer electronics may have changed the scenario, guessed Edgar Hertwich, a professor of energy and process engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

To test the idea, Hertwich and his colleague Charlotte Roux modeled the greenhouse gases that come from household electronics and appliances in Norwegian homes in 2008. Using data from life-cycle assessments, sales reports, and other studies, they calculated the greenhouse emissions of the devices, considering manufacture, use, and disposal.

They found that freezers and refrigerators accounted for the most emissions: the equivalent of about 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per household in 2008. Televisions and computers ranked second and third, contributing about 1,300 and 1,100 pounds of greenhouse emissions, respectively.

Taken together, entertainment devices–including televisions, computers, DVD players, audio equipment, phones, and game consoles–produced more greenhouse gases than the traditional household appliances did combined.

For many of the devices, most of the emissions came during manufacturing. For example, the researchers found that manufacturing a laptop created about 700 pounds of greenhouse gases. But using electricity to run a laptop generated only about 18 pounds of emissions in 2008.

Hertwich says that the rapid turnover of electronics increases the importance of manufacturing's emissions. Norwegian households purchase a washing machine only once every nine years, on average, but buy a computer every two years and a television every 3.5 years.

He says that the study also underscores the need for cleaner energy sources in countries where manufacturing occurs: "We're importing dirty Chinese or Australian or South African electricity with these products."

Anders Andrae, a Stockholm-based expert in life-cycle assessments, says that to reduce emissions, consumers would have to stop buying electronics so frequently or buy less carbon-intensive products. Maybe, he suggests, phones and other devices could be upgraded instead of simply replaced.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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