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Divisive devices

Justin Sutton-Parker on the new research that creates a level playing field for personal computer carbon footprints
High-angle shot of two people working in an office, comparing information on computers

The more often we replace items, the greater our carbon footprint becomes. Unless we’re able to identify products with a low environmental impact, the issue will just get bigger.

Personal computers are part of our daily life and generate 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is caused by manufacturing over 460m new devices annually and the electricity consumed by 4.2bn users accessing digital content for work or leisure.

Manufacturers publish product carbon footprint reports and selecting the right device should be simple. However, I recently conducted research that reveals it’s anything but simple.

Comparing real-world devices

Brands use different methods to represent potential emissions, meaning reports are incomparable. The problem is due to how many years of use (electricity consumption) are included and where the device is used, as the carbon intensity of electricity varies across regions.

A real-life scenario explains this. Desktop computer ‘A’ has a published carbon footprint of 197kgCO2e, while a similar device ‘B’ is 250kgCO2e.

Obviously, the first device looks like the right choice. However, the first publication only includes one year of use and is calculated for Europe, where a high level of renewable energy adoption exists.

Changing both computers to reflect the same eight years’ retention and use in the USA increases the carbon footprint of computer ‘A’ to 23% higher than ‘B’ at 326kgCO2e.

As a result, it is very easy for people who are trying to do the right thing to unwittingly select products that actually make the emissions problem worse.

Unpicking carbon footprints

Beyond limited awareness, ‘unpicking’ complex carbon footprint reports requires specific experience and takes many hours.

Considering global legislation now requires organisations to purchase IT equipment that contributes 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 produces a solution for businesses and governments struggling with assessment and the selection of devices using sustainability criteria.

The Dynamic Carbon Footprint

Called the Px3 Dynamic Carbon Footprint, the online application now completes the recalculation task in real time.

This enables prospective buyers to select a computer with confidence and on a level playing field. In fact, the application allows users to input how many years the device will be kept and where it will be used.

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 download a carbon footprint report specific to the organisation’s retention and use policy to achieve compliance with the evolving legislation.

The tool is now so popular that it is used to determine the sustainability decision-making criteria for organisations with over 3m computer users.

The advancement in computer and urban science means that commercial buyers no longer have to tackle the issue of divisive devices. Instead they can rest assured that the computers they select help to support the UN sustainable development goals.

Specifically, the behaviour drives responsible production and consumption and enables climate action to safeguard the future.

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