Mobiles: the global carbon footprint

illustration of the components inside a smartphone

We wrote this page about five years ago because we were concerned that many people never considered one of the hidden environmental impacts of their mobiles. This page is now one of the most popular pages on our site. Welcome, if you are here for the first time!

Just one mobile

We took lots of different mobiles and concluded

the average mobile creates 55 kilograms of carbon emissions in manufacture, equal to 26 weeks of laundry

(One week of laundry — three machine washes 40 degrees C, line dried — is roughly equal to 2.1 kg of carbon emissions. Source: Mike Berners-Lee, via The Guardian.)

This figure is conservative, based on an average of carbon footprints ca. 2018 from 4 manufacturers of 17 mobile models, including a couple non-smartphones. (It’s worth noting that manufacturers do not follow standards for carbon footprinting, or “life cycle analysis”. Review and/or contribute.)

Almost 2 billion mobiles: footprint at global scale

The footprint of one mobile might seem insignificant. But not when we consider that 1.9 billion mobile phones were projected to be sold in 2018. Approximately 60 per second. This number of nearly 2 billion mobiles is consistent over the past couple of years.

The total carbon footprint in manufacture of mobiles is at least equal to the Philippines’ annual carbon emissions, a country of over 100 million people 🇵🇭.

(Sources: Gartner estimate of the number of mobiles sold in 2018. Emissions data from World Databank, dated 2014.)

If we slowed global consumption

All of us can help reduce the impact of our mobiles, by simply using them for longer. We can buy repairable mobiles, repair them when broken and stop replacing them so frequently. (We can also ask for more efficient design and manufacture.)

If we used every phone sold this year for 1/3 longer, we would prevent carbon emissions equal to Ireland’s annual emissions 🇮🇪

These emissions savings would occur three years from now, assuming new purchases are displaced. (Same sources as above.)

Other impacts by mobiles

And this is just the carbon footprint. In production, mobiles require a large amount of water, both in the mining process but also in the manufacture of chips.

Moreover, mobiles are extremely materially complex and contain valuable raw materials, only a small part of which are recycled. Mining processes create huge amounts of waste. If mining occurs in countries without rule of law, sound regulation and enforcement, risks arise. You can learn more about this on our page “Materials Matter“.