Submitted: The Two Sides Team October 10, 2012
Our analysis indicates that, on average, if nature charged for its services, the true cost of a desktop computer would be around 6 percent higher than the retail price, while the laptop would be 14 percent more expensive. Carbon emissions create most of the cost but there are significant differences between the desktop and the laptop.
October 3 2012
by Richard Mattison – GreenBiz
Personal computers are ubiquitous in our everyday life. We all rely
on them and, in fact, it would have been impossible for me to write this
without one. It is one of the great success stories of our time.
Most people are aware of Moore’s Law that computing power doubles
roughly every 18 months. What most people don’t know is that the electrical efficiency
the number of computations that can be completed per kilowatt-hour of
electricity used also doubles every 18 months. This is great news in a
world where carbon emissions need to be reduced and energy costs are
However, while electrical efficiency and computing power seem to be
rising at a constant rate, the growth in the sales of PCs is
accelerating. The number of computer units shipped has increased from
135 million in 2000 to 355 million in 2011. This is predicted to rise to
over 700 million by 2016 (including tablets) fantastic growth rate by
any measure. In the last decade sales doubled. In the next five years
they are predicted to double again. Is this growth rate sustainable?
Trucost calculated the financial costs for the environmental impacts
of a desktop and a laptop. It is worth noting that we used industry
average data and that, of course, there is significant variation among
products. We analyzed the stages of the product lifecycle from raw
material processing and manufacturing through to transportation, use by
the customer and endisposal or recycling. The carbon emissions, water,
and waste flows were calculated for generic products in each category.
Note that for the use phase we did not include the emissions arising
from the Internet (data centers), only the electricity consumed by each
device. Trucost then calculated the natural capital cost of each of
these environmental impacts. For carbon we used the social cost. For
water, a local issue, we correlated the volume of water required to
produce the raw materials with local scarcity by gathering data on the
location of production and pricing water accordingly.
To view the full analysis, click on the image below. The percentages
show each item’s share of the product’s total environmental impact.
Our analysis indicates that, on average, if nature charged for its
services, the true cost of a desktop computer would be around 6
percent higher than the retail price, while the laptop would be 14
percent more expensive. Carbon emissions create most of the cost but
there are significant differences between the desktop and the laptop.
The largest proportion of the desktop’s impact comes from its
electricity consumption. Laptops consume significantly less energy
during the use phase, which is the reason why they perform better
overall, though they are marginally more water intensive than desktops.
To demonstrate the optimization opportunity for a laptop computer, we
analyzed the true cost of aluminum extraction, a key raw material in
laptop production, across the major production locations. We found a
very significant 60 percent variation. China had the highest impact due
to its coal dependency. Canada had the lowest impact due to the fact
that its industry sector uses natural gas for 46 percent of its energy
So, is the growth in sales of PCs sustainable? The answer depends in
part on how growth of PC unit sales is balanced against gains in
energy-efficient technology, and on a switch from coal to less
carbon-intensive forms of electricity generation. Emerging-market PC
sales are growing at faster rates than developed markets, so a lot will
depend on how countries such as China generate electricity.
But this is not the only dynamic at play. Sales of desktops are
declining and are forecast to be 22 percent of the total by 2016.
Shipments of laptops will grow to just over 50 percent, with tablets
accounting for the remainder. Unlike desktops, most of the impact of a
laptop (and tablet) lies in the raw material and manufacturing phase. As
our analysis of aluminum extraction demonstrates, it will be critical
for PC manufacturers to focus on optimization opportunities in the
supply chain in addition to improving the energy efficiency of the
product. Companies are now using natural capital valuation tools to
examine how they can create efficiencies across the value chain that
balance a number of different environmental impacts.
Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, once said, “Computers are
magnificent tools for the realization of our dreams, but no machine can
replace the human spark of spirit, compassion, love, and understanding.”
If we are to grow sustainably, we need to optimize value chains in
order to preserve the natural capital we all rely on. This will require
businesses to work collaboratively to redefine how and where products
are made and used. Perhaps we need more of that human spark!