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IGEL & Earth Day 2021: Live Together Longer – why human-machine symbiosis could save the planet

IGEL & Earth Day 2021: Live Together Longer – why human-machine symbiosis could save the planet

Information technology currently contributes to a minimum of 2.3% of greenhouse gas emissions and is growing at approximately 3% per year.

With an estimated 3.2bn end user computing (EUC) devices already in use globally, new purchases of desktop PCs, notebooks and tablets exceeded 450 million units in 2020. This represents a 5% increase on the previous year and constitutes the highest growth in ten years.

The rise in sales is directly attributed to the pandemic accelerating remote working, home schooling and a shift towards purchasing products that improve home life.

Consequently, IT user numbers grew at a rate of three hundred and nineteen million per year with associated internet data centre traffic rising 40%. As an indication of what is required to power this digital surge, data centre electricity to now account for 1% of global consumption at 200TWh per year.

As the interface to access these data centres to enable work, education and now more often than not, recreation, EUC devices have become part of our everyday human-machine symbiosis. The rationale being that whether productivity or leisure time, humans and computing machines now ‘live together’ in the true sense of the word.

However, the difference between the two is that human life lasts far longer than the machine’s. Reaching on average 80 years we will consequently interact on a long term basis with approximately 20 EUC devices during our time on Earth.

Like all technology, this is because there is often a shelf life attached to computers whether due to new versions becoming more appealing or new software forcing upgrades. Consequently, we will ultimately decide to end the relationship at some point, although in environmental impact terms the question is, ‘did we jump too soon’?

The probability is that we have and in fact with a little thought, we could reduce the cumulative 20 EUC devices to 14. This could be achieved by avoiding the popular habit of refreshing every 3 years and moving to a minimum of 5-year retention period.

The environmental impact if this were embraced in concert is substantial. Six less devices across the lifespan of IT users results in a 30% reduction in demand. In annual terms this change in behaviour would theoretically prevent 135 million devices from being manufactured each year.

As such, based on average greenhouse gas emissions created each time a desktop PC, notebook or tablet is manufactured the annual greenhouse gas abatement could be as much as 19.3bn kgCO2e.

Staggeringly, this is equal to preventing the emissions of 48.5bn car miles and has the potential to free up the photosynthetic sequestering capacity of over 23 million acres of forest.

From a personal perspective it is certainly food for thought, but on Earth Day 2021 we should also consider the wider picture of climate change and how our machine-symbiosis could help.

Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities known as anthropogenic interference have already caused 1.0°C of global warming. 1.5°C will be reached between 2030 and 2052 if emissions increases continue at the current rate. However, scientists calculate that reaching and sustaining net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions by mid-century, will halt global warming on a multi-decadal scale and temperature gains will begin to peak.

To achieve this goal, the world cannot rely solely on the key strategies such as the electrification of transport as evidence indicates that rapidity of adoption will not be sufficient to bridge the required 32GtCO2e abatement gap between success and failure. Alternatively, all aspects of human pollutant activities must be examined and low carbon behaviours proffered and diffused.

Such an idea as reducing EUC replacement cycles sits well with the United Nations report. This indicates that to achieve critical abatement success within the next decade, the world must combine existing technology with innovation to drive behavioural changes capable of reducing societal emissions.

In this context, extending the useful lifecycle of a personal computing devices will most certainly add to the groundswell of ideas that will help to tackle global warming and ultimately climate change.

The answer to achieving this could be to just simply love the device for an extra 24 months regardless of whatever latest model becomes available. Alternatively, when faced with an operating system no longer being supported by certain application, the same extension could be accomplished by transforming the device into a thin client powered by an IGEL UD pocket device.

In a world of business where desktop and software as a service are now dominant, the emphasis for the device to be performant is diminished. As such with the IGEL UD Pocket, the IGEL Linux 10 desktop can be accessed from any USB-bootable PC, laptop, tablet that could have been destined for recycling.

Now re-purposed, the device not only lives on but also helps you to reduce your lifetime count of 20 EUC devices. At the same time, you will be responsible for saving a small part of the planet. Fewer raw and often precious materials will be mined, formed, tested and delivered to your doorstep. And consequently, fewer GHG emissions will be generated to saturate our atmosphere and drive global warming and ultimately climate change.

As such, when you celebrate Earth Day 2021 contemplate your human-machine symbiosis. Think about all the EUC devices of old and those devices you have begun to covet for the future. Take a moment and simply think, ‘Is my machine really at the end of its life or can we live together for a while longer?’

Justin Sutton-Parker

Computer & Urban Science Doctorate Researcher MBA, Sustainability & Leadership
Posted in Earth Day
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