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With computer hardware manufacturers making commitments of varying degrees to sustainability, one of the biggest benefits has come from those who have willingly published information estimating the carbon footprint and energy usage of their products.

Take two of the biggest companies in the PC space, Dell and HP, both of which have set up web pages listing their product carbon footprints. They can be found at Dell https://corporate.delltechnologies.com/en-us/social-impact/advancing-sustainability/sustainable-prod... and  HP https://h22235.www2.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/productdata/ProductCarbonFootprintde....

Looking through the different pages for desktop PCs and laptops, it is all too apparent that, in the vast majority of instances, the carbon footprint and energy usage of laptops is significantly lower than for desktops. The good news from a sustainability point of view is that computer manufacturers are selling more laptops than PCs – and have been doing so for some time.

Both of those companies – and a number of their rivals – also sell monitors. Understandably. If you’re buying a desktop PC, you need a monitor (unless you’re purchasing an all-in-one such as an iMac, a Dell OptiPlex or an HP All-in-One). Most people who buy a laptop don’t need one although it’s worth pointing out a large number of organisations tend to have monitors employees can dock their notebooks with in the office.

Let’s just return to laptops and desktops briefly and ask: how many people consider the estimated carbon footprint and energy usage of their PC or notebook before they buy it? Your guess is as good as mine but I’m sceptical that it’s high on the priority list for many probably because there’s an assumption that most computers are more or less the same. As we’ve seen, that’s just not true. A Dell Precision 3551 laptop, for example, has a carbon footprint of 376 kgCO2 and an energy demand of 28.69 kWh. According to Dell, it has a footprint equivalent to driving 921 miles in a passenger car. The Dell Precision 3630 PC has a carbon footprint of 590 kgCO2 and an energy demand of 137.51 kWh with “a footprint approx. equivalent to driving 1446 miles in a passenger car.”

If people don’t pay too much attention to the carbon footprint of their PC or laptop, you can imagine how disinterested they might be in the carbon footprint of the monitors they buy. To keep things simple, we’ll go with a basic model, the 22 inch Dell E2220H which costs just a little bit over $100. What would you estimate the carbon footprint would be for something like that? Using the 376 kgCO2 for a laptop as a guide, you probably wouldn’t go much over 200 kgCO2 for a monitor. It’s only a screen after all.

Sadly, you’d be very far off. The estimated carbon footprint for the Dell E2220H is higher than for the 15inch Dell Precision 3551 laptop, coming in at 411 kgCO2. Just stop for a second and try to get your head around the fact that attaching the laptop to that monitor in the office would mean more than doubling the carbon footprint for an extra 7in of screen. Buying that monitor to use with a Precision 3630 would increase your carbon footprint by almost 70%! If you chose to opt for the PC and monitor option, the carbon footprint would be 266% higher than if you used the laptop on its own.

Let’s not forget, that’s not even one of the fancy models. A 4K monitor, such as the Dell P24 15Q, has a carbon footprint of 606 kgCO2 – higher than for the Precision 3630 PC – and “equivalent to driving 1485 miles in a passenger car.” Or, put another way, “10 of these products have a footprint approx. equal to what 7.1 acres of US forests can absorb in a year.” The high-end 8K Dell UP3218K has a footprint that’s 83% higher at 1012 kgCO2 with an energy demand of 165.34 kWh. You don’t want to know how many miles that is or how many acres of forests you need to absorb the carbon emissions from ten of them.

I have to admit to finding some of those figures shocking. But my sense of shock is born of ignorance. How many of us ever stop to wonder what the carbon footprint is for a monitor? Very few, I would hazard. But if those numbers serve any purpose, at the bare minimum they should prompt us to look more carefully at why we need monitors before we blithely go out and buy them. The colours may look clear and sharp on the screen but if you step back a bit and look more closely, you might find that the green seems to be missing.