Taking aim at manufacturing emissions

One of the things most IT producers and manufacturers appear loathe to admit is that the best way to reduce CO2 emissions is to stop producing things that are responsible for CO2 emissions. Instead, they focus far more on how emissions can be reduced after those devices or products are manufactured. They appear much keener on emphasising how those devices – and the components, materials and metals they contain – can be reused and recycled.

It’s true that they have made commitments to reduce emissions from their manufacturing processes but producers are finding those gains much harder to achieve than the reductions in emissions they can achieve after the fact.

For example, according to its own figures, HP’s carbon footprint was 5% higher in 2019 than in 2018 at nearly 46.79 million tonnes of CO2. And while the company’s water footprint decreased 3% compared to 2018 to 249 million cubic metres, it was still over 5% higher than in 2017. Closer inspection of the water footprint figures reveal most of the reduction in 2019 came from a decrease in the water consumption associated with the generation of electricity used by HP products. But the figure in 2019 was still 3.6% higher than it was in 2017.

In a statement, HP noted “a 12% increase in product manufacturing emissions — due largely to business growth and changes in the mix of key personal systems products and components — more than offset a 3% reduction in product use phase emissions driven by improved product energy efficiency.”

Now, if you look at the breakdown for CO2 emissions from computer equipment such as desktop PCs, laptops and monitors, the manufacturing process typically accounts for 60-70% of emissions. Use of the product over its lifetime is responsible for around 20% or so.

It’s easy to see the attraction of extending the lifetime of the product through reuse to reduce CO2 emissions compared to buying a new one, although manufacturers probably don’t want it to have too much of an effect on the sales of new products. The difficulty is that reuse, while a worthy objective and a relatively easy win, cannot operate in isolation from reduce. Right now, the suspicion is that it does.

You could argue that the more people reuse products, the less demand there will be for new ones which may lead to a reduction in production over time. But in the meantime, shouldn’t the manufacturers be expending more energy on reducing CO2 emissions from the part of their operations that contributes the most: the manufacturing process?

The hard facts are that concentrating on the 20% or so of CO2 emissions attributed to the use of a PC, laptop or monitor, as a means to reduce those emissions through reuse is unlikely to achieve significant reductions in the short term.

One of the laziest analogies the computer industry used to make in the past was with the car industry. But when it comes to CO2 emissions, the situations facing the IT and automotive industries seem to be the exact opposite of each other. According to Ford, for example, only 3% of the company’s CO2 emissions were factory-based and 75% came from vehicle use and it could get worse due to the increasing popularity of SUVs which are far more damaging to the environment. But that 75% is a big target and the increasing use of electric vehicles could have a profound effect on the emissions from use.

The good news for the IT industry is that CO2 emissions from use of their products is relatively low. Computer manufacturers have clearly done a good job in making their products more energy efficient. The issue now is to ensure that making them is less costly to the environment. Like the car manufacturers, they have a big target to aim at, even if it’s a very different one. The irony is that when they start to do a better job in reducing emissions on the manufacturing side, emissions from use will increase proportionately. By the same token, the proportion of emissions reduced through reuse will also decrease overall.

Whatever happens, decreasing CO2 emissions in the manufacturing process for desktop PCs, laptops and monitors, is still the best way to reduce the overall figure for emissions. Short of not making them all.