Fairphone is (really) trying to quantify the CO2 footprint of a smartphone

What is my smartphone’s CO2 footprint on the environment? Behind this simple question hides an ultra-complex calculation that Fairphone is trying to popularize by, of course, taking its own phone as an example.

Fairphone plays on transparency. The Dutch company, which specializes in selling repairable and environmentally friendly phones, has just published the life cycle analysis (LCA) of its latest phone, Fairphone 4. The report’s conclusions are obvious, but deserve to be remembered: the best way to reduce your phone’s CO2 imprint on is to keep it as long as possible.

In the case of Fairphone 4, use the phone for five years “could reduce the phone’s annual CO2 footprint by 31%“. Use it for seven years,”emissions fall by 44%“, according to the company. To put it more simply, the emissions emitted during the production of the phone are more” profitable “ecologically if you store your phone for a long time. The total CO2 footprint is gradually” diluted “in what the earth is capable of absorbing CO2 each year.

What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?

To assess the CO2 footprint of its phone, Fairphone used a standardized calculation method called life cycle analysis. According to Ademe (The Ecological Transition Agency), the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) takes into account “inventory of flows, from cradle to grave: extraction of energy and non-energy raw materials needed to manufacture the product, distribution, use, collection and disposal for obsolete channels, as well as all transport phases“. Instead of simply quantifying the CO2 released during the construction of the smartphone, the LCA will take into account the energy used during recharging and when the phone is put in the bin. This method has the advantage that it is much more exhaustive than the simple calculation at the factory.

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We call flow everything that is involved in the manufacture of the product and everything that comes out in relation to pollution. Among the incoming streams we find e.g. materials and energy: iron resources, water, oil, gas. As for outgoing currents, they can correspond to waste, gaseous emissions, discarded liquid, etc.”Ademe specifies on its website.

The impressive study conducted by Fairphone (yet 215 pages) makes it possible to assess the role of each of the components in the phone’s overall CO2 footprint. In construction alone, it is not surprising that the motherboard consumes the most CO2, which alone represents 71% of emissions.

According to the study, the Fairphone 4 releases 43 kg of CO2 equivalent, a number slightly higher than the Fairphone 3 due to new features and built-in components and “a higher proportion of shipments during the Covid-19 period and the microchip crisis“. Without surprise,”the majority of the emissions and consumption of limited resources take place at the time of production of the device“, Admits Fairphone.

On the consumer side, the best way to reduce its impact (besides storing your phone for a long time) is to repair it as much as possible. “The emissions generated by the manufacture of these spare parts, their packaging and their shipment to the user, or the dispatch of the device to a repair center, are thus theoretically offset after only a few weeks of further use of the device.“, describes the company.

Software responsibility

Finally, one of the last important bricks to reduce the smartphone’s CO2 footprint is, of course, software monitoring. The longer a phone receives security updates, the less important it will be to replace it. From this point of view, few players in the Android world are above reproach. Samsung and Google offer between four and five years of follow-up, and even Fairphone does not currently commit after 2025.

As we can see, it takes a lot of work to accurately quantify the CO2 footprint of a smartphone today. But what the example of Fairphone clearly shows is that even though you are very careful about what you buy and how you treat your smartphone, there is still a lot of effort to be made before you achieve a “sustainable” consumption. Remember that in France, according to Arcep, “the duration of individual use of smartphones is estimated at between 23 months and 37.

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