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Last updated: 8 May 2024

Is Technology Bad for the Environment? Statistics, Trends, and Facts

The depicting the contrasting effects of technology on the environment, with other polluted by industrial waste.

The rapid advancement of technology has transformed our lives, offering countless benefits and conveniences. However, this progress comes with a significant environmental cost.

The tech industry accounts for 7% of global emissions and is expected to rise rapidly with the growth of data centres, cloud computing, and the widespread use of electronic devices. The energy consumption of the IT sector is significant, with data centres alone using 70 billion kWh of electricity. 

The tech industry consumes massive amounts of energy to power data centres, servers, and other IT infrastructure

Moreover, extracting and refining critical materials, such as those used in smartphones, require significant energy. Mining these materials often results in land and water degradation due to the intensive and polluting processes involved. For instance, producing a single smartphone requires around 12,760 litres of water, considering all the steps from mining to manufacturing​.

Big Tech companies significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 4% of global emissions in 2023.  

These numbers paint a complex picture. E-waste, the rapidly growing mountain of discarded electronics, is a significant concern, with an estimated 57.4 million metric tonnes.

As we explore the stats, trends, and facts, we will uncover the darker side of our technological conveniences, including the challenges of managing e-waste and the carbon footprint of maintaining vast digital infrastructures. 

What Do We Mean by Technology Exactly?

Technology touches every aspect of our lives, but what does it mean? It embodies human ingenuity—a dynamic and ever-evolving toolset that extends our capabilities reshapes our lives, and drives our society forward. 

It's the practical application of knowledge, particularly in industries and everyday life, encompassing everything from the wheel to the latest smartphone. 

Technology constantly evolves, driven by scientific discovery and human ingenuity. Innovation shapes our world, from the printing press to the light bulb to self-driving cars.

Here's a glimpse into the diverse world of technology:

  • Physical Technologies: These are tangible objects we can see and touch, like computers, cars, medical equipment, and household appliances.
  • Intangible Technologies: These are systems and processes, like software, algorithms, artificial intelligence, and social media platforms.
  • Biotechnology: This field combines biology and technology to create new products and processes, such as medicine, genetically modified crops, and biofuels.
  • Nanotechnology: This branch of technology deals with manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level, with potential applications in medicine, materials science, and electronics.

The impact of technology on society is undeniable. Understanding technology's dual impact on the environment is crucial. It's not just about the latest gadget or app; it's about how these innovations are produced, used, and disposed of. 

The Environmental Toll of Technological Progress

While technology has propelled us to heights of comfort and efficiency, it also poses significant environmental challenges.

The environmental impact is multifaceted, ranging from natural resource depletion to electronic waste (e-waste) generation. The production of electronic devices consumes vast amounts of energy and raw materials, often leading to deforestation, soil degradation, and water pollution.

The environmental impact of technology encompasses a broad spectrum of effects that digitalisation and the use of electronic devices have on the planet.

For instance, the energy sector, heavily reliant on technology, is responsible for a substantial portion of greenhouse gas emissions, with energy-related carbon dioxide being a major contributor to climate change. Similarly, despite its non-tangible nature, the IT sector has a tangible environmental footprint, with data centres and workplace devices contributing significantly to carbon emissions.

The tech industry consumes massive amounts of energy to power data centres, servers, and other IT infrastructure

The manufacturing of digital devices, a hallmark of modern technology, also carries an environmental cost. The process dominates the carbon footprint, water consumption, and resource depletion throughout the products' life cycle. 

The significant impact on the environment is both positive and negative. On the positive side, technological advancements have led to more efficient and cleaner energy sources, improved waste management, and better monitoring of environmental conditions. However, many technologies' production, use, and disposal have also contributed to pollution, resource depletion, and habitat destruction.

Here's a factual data table showcasing the environmental impact of various technologies:

TechnologyEnvironmental Impact
Fossil Fuel Power PlantsAir pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution
Plastic ProductionGreenhouse gas emissions, waste accumulation, pollution
Electronic Waste (E-Waste)Toxic materials, soil and water contamination
Deforestation for AgricultureLoss of biodiversity, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions
Mining and Mineral ExtractionHabitat destruction, water pollution, air pollution
Transportation (Cars, Planes, Ships)Air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution

The shift towards renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and hydroelectric power is facilitated by technological advancements, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

However, its environmental implications are not confined to any region; they are a global concern. 

What is so bad about technology for the environment?

  • The tech industry accounts for 2-7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this is rapidly increasing as digitalisation takes over.
  • Over 53.6 million tons of e-waste is produced globally, a 21% rise in just 5 years.
  • Only 6% of organisations have a highly mature, sustainable IT strategy with clear goals and timelines.
  • 89% of organisations recycle less than 10% of their IT hardware.

What is the impact of technology?

The digital world's carbon footprint is substantial and growing rapidly. For example, the average American family spends £1,350 on new electronic products annually. This is quite staggering and extends to e-waste management. 

Total impact per year

Globally, digital equipment is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with projections suggesting this could double by 2025. The manufacturing process of digital technology is particularly carbon-intensive, accounting for 47% of the sector's emissions. Additionally, the tech world's climate impact is often overlooked, with data centres, workplace devices, and ICT networks accounting for 6% to 12% of global energy use. For instance, the international ICT sector produces approximately 730 million tonnes of CO2 annually, nearly equivalent to the aviation industry's emissions.

Impact per day

Daily, the use of technology significantly contributes to environmental degradation. The ICT sector's activities produce roughly 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. For instance, the average person in the UK spends 24 hours a week online, equating to a substantial energy footprint when scaled across the population. In the US, teen screen time averages over 7 hours a day, excluding homework, further adding to the energy demand.

Impact per usage

Each interaction with technology, from streaming a video to sending an email, has an environmental cost. For instance, each internet search emits about 0.2 grams of CO2. While this seems minimal, the cumulative effect becomes significant considering the billions of daily searches. The energy consumption and GHG emissions associated with these activities are non-negligible. For example, streaming online video accounts for over 300 million tons of CO2 consumption annually.

This is a significant environmental impact of technology, emphasising the urgency for sustainable practices and innovations within the sector.

Technology Production

The global landscape of technology-driven economies is rapidly evolving, with several countries leading the charge in technological advancements and economic contributions.

Technology drives the depletion of natural resources through high demand for materials like rare earth metals and energy consumption in device production and operation.

These leading economies contribute significantly to global GDP and drive technological advancements that shape our daily lives and future. 

Here, we explore the top large economies contributing to the technology sector.

Top Largest Economies Contributing to Technology

  1. United States: A Technological Powerhouse  - The United States remains the world's largest economy, with a projected GDP of £26.8 trillion by 2028. It is home to Silicon Valley, the epicentre of global technology innovation, housing giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook. The US continues to lead in research and development, digital services, and software, driving substantial economic growth through technology.
  2. China: Rapid Technological Advancements - with a forecasted GDP of £19.3 trillion by 2028, China is a major player in the technology sector. The country has made significant strides in digital infrastructure, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications. Despite recent regulatory challenges, China's tech industry remains robust, contributing heavily to its economic position on the global stage.
  3. Japan: Innovating Beyond Borders: Japan, known for its technological innovation, strongly focuses on robotics, electronics, and automotive technology. With a GDP of £3.9 trillion, Japan invests heavily in technology to maintain its competitive edge. The country's commitment to quality and precision in technology continues to influence global markets.
  4. Germany: Engineering Technological Solutions - with a GDP of £2.97 trillion, Germany excels in engineering and automotive technology. It is renowned for its high-quality production and engineering solutions, crucial to its economic framework. Germany's focus on renewable energy and efficient technologies also positions it as a leader in sustainable technological advancements.
  5. India: A New Frontier in Technology - Projected to reach a GDP of £4.55 trillion by 2028, India is rapidly emerging as a significant technology market. With advancements in information technology and software services, India is home to major IT companies and startups, contributing to global innovations and digital services.

Leading Nations in Tech Innovation

CountryKey Tech SectorComposite ScoreEnvironmental Initiatives
South KoreaElectronics6.63Investment in renewable energy and recycling programs
United StatesSoftware and Digital Platforms4.94Carbon offset programs and green tech innovations
GermanyAutomotive Technology3.35Policies for reducing vehicle emissions and energy use
JapanRobotics and Semiconductors2.97Advanced recycling and sustainable manufacturing practices
ChinaTelecommunications-0.23Green energy projects and pollution control measures
SwitzerlandBiotechnology4.68High standards for environmental safety in production
United KingdomArtificial Intelligence3.49Initiatives for sustainable AI development
SwedenTelecommunications3.75Focus on reducing carbon footprint in tech production
FinlandMobile Technology3.94Eco-friendly manufacturing processes
SingaporeFintech and Cybersecurity3.5Strong regulations on data center energy efficiency
Data source: GreenMatch analysis based on different environmental and industry studies.

This concise overview highlights these countries' prowess and underscores their environmental responsibilities. 

Statistics, Facts and Figures About Technology

Let's delve into the crucial statistics surrounding the environmental footprint of the technology sector, highlighting energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and electronic waste. We present data across different regions, providing a global perspective.

We should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess our biggest existential threat, it's probably that. So, we need to be very careful.

Environmental Impact of Technology by Core Region

RegionAnnual E-WasteRecycling Rate (%)GHG Emissions (million tonnes CO2e)
Asia18,000,00015400
North America12,000,00022250
Europe7,000,00035200

Global Energy Consumption and Emissions

The technology sector is a major energy consumer, primarily due to data centres, cloud computing, and the increasing array of internet-connected devices. Here are some key figures:

  • Data Centers and Cloud Services: These facilities account for about 1% of global electricity use.
  • ICT Sector: The broader ICT sector accounts for approximately 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, comparable to the aviation industry's emissions from fuel.
  • There are over 5 billion mobile phone users globally, with Asia leading the pack at 3.8 billion. 

Environmental Impact by Region

  • Asia: Leads in electronic production and, consequently, e-waste, contributing to 24.9 million metric tons.
  • Americas: This is followed by a combined output of 13.1 million metric tons, with North America alone responsible for 7.9 million metric tons.
  • Europe: Not far behind, Europe generated 12 million metric tons, with higher recycling rates at 42.5%.
  • Africa and Oceania: Produce the least, yet have minimal recycling facilities, exacerbating environmental harm.
  • A single smartphone generates approximately 80% of its total carbon footprint during manufacturing.
  • Data centres are particularly problematic, accounting for 45% of the carbon emissions within the global ICT sector.

Electronic Waste (E-Waste)

E-waste represents a significant environmental challenge, exacerbated by rapid technological advancements and the short lifespan of many devices:

  • Global Generation: Annually, the world produces around 50 million tonnes of e-waste.
  • Recycling Rates: Only about 20% of global e-waste is formally recycled.
  • Conversely, Africa has the lowest rate, with significant disparities in e-waste management and recycling capabilities across its countries. 
  • Europe leads the world in e-waste recycling, with countries like Estonia, Norway, and Iceland boasting the highest rates of electronic waste recycling.
  • About 347 million tonnes of e-waste are produced annually globally, with only 17.4% being recycled.
  • In 2022, the figure reached a record 57.4 million metric tonnes, according to the Global E-waste Monitor 2023. 

Regional Insights

The impact of technology on the environment varies significantly by region and is influenced by local policies, technological adoption rates, and industrial activities.

  • North America: The U.S. and Canada are large producers of e-waste, each generating several million tonnes per year, with recycling rates below 25%.
  • Europe: Countries like the UK and Germany have slightly higher recycling rates, around 35%, but still face challenges in e-waste management.
  • Asia: Home to several of the world's largest technology manufacturers, Asia sees substantial environmental impacts from producing and disposing of electronic goods. China and India, for example, are among the top producers of e-waste.

Economic Impact

The technology sector's environmental impact also has economic dimensions, particularly regarding energy consumption and the potential costs associated with carbon emissions and e-waste management.

  • Cost of Emissions: The tech industry's reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation is not only environmentally unsustainable but also economically burdensome as global carbon pricing mechanisms become more prevalent.
  • The global app market is expected to generate over £800 billion in revenue by 2023, showcasing our insatiable appetite for mobile applications.

Is Technology Toxic?

Environmental damage is one of the most direct ways technology manifests its toxicity. Moreover, the manufacturing processes for electronic components expose workers to toxic substances, potentially leading to serious health issues. 

Electronic devices contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. When improperly disposed of, these substances can leach into the soil and water, causing significant environmental harm. In 2019 alone, the world generated an estimated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste, but only a small fraction received proper recycling treatment. 

In addition, extracting rare earth metals and other materials necessary for electronic devices often leads to land, water, and air pollution. Mining activities can result in habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, and the spread of toxic wastes. For instance, producing a single smartphone can require up to 3,190 gallons of water. 

Beyond physical health and environmental impact, technology also introduces a form of toxicity that affects social interactions and mental health. The term "digital toxicity" encompasses the adverse effects of prolonged and unsupervised use of digital media and devices. Issues such as digital addiction, cyberbullying, and the spread of misinformation are prevalent, with significant impacts on mental health and societal harmony. 

Impact TypeDescriptionEstimated Annual Cost (£)
E-wasteToxic materials leaching into ecosystems2.5 billion
Carbon EmissionsEmissions from non-renewable energy sources used in tech3 billion
Health IssuesConditions caused by chemical exposure in manufacturing1 billion

Are Technological Products Degradable?

Most technology products are composed of metals, plastics, and electronic components. Metals can often be recycled, but the plastics used in tech are typically non-biodegradable. These plastics may take hundreds of years to break down, releasing toxic substances into the environment. 

Annually, the world generates between 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste, a significant portion of which is in landfills or improperly disposed of in developing countries.

The production of smartphones, for example, is a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, with a Deloitte report indicating that smartphones generated 146 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2022 alone. The materials required for these devices, such as lithium, neodymium, and antimony, are scarce and contribute to the carbon footprint during mining and manufacturing. 

For instance, a staggering 80% of a smartphone's carbon footprint is attributed to its production, with only 16% accounted for by its use during its lifetime. The remaining emissions are from transportation, getting the product from supplier to consumer. Once discarded, less than 16% of electronic waste is recycled.

The IT sector significantly contributes to global carbon emissions, particularly through data centres and network infrastructure which are energy-intensive

Despite the grim scenario, advancements in green technology offer a glimmer of hope. For instance, researchers are developing biodegradable polymers that can significantly reduce the environmental impact of disposed electronics.

The stark reality is that most technological products are not readily degradable, posing a substantial challenge to environmental sustainability.

Is Technology Sustainable?

Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort towards sustainable technology practices. However, for technology to be truly sustainable, industries must embrace circular economy models that prioritise resource efficiency and waste reduction.

Adopting a circular economy model, where resources are reused and recycled, is becoming a focus for many tech companies. This approach reduces the dependency on raw materials and decreases overall environmental impacts.

Globally, the push towards sustainable tech is gaining momentum. The recycling of e-waste is a growing industry, valued at approximately £43 billion in 2019, and is projected to reach around £50 billion by 2026.

The balance between these aspects will define the future of technology's sustainability. While it continues to advance, its environmental impact must be addressed.

Can Technological Products Be Recycled?

Initiatives are underway to tackle the growing tech-waste concern. The UN reports that only a fraction of e-waste is properly collected and recycled, highlighting the need for improved consumer education and recycling infrastructure. 

For instance, innovations like smart waste bins and sensors streamline the collection process, while artificial intelligence improves sorting efficiency. However, adopting such technologies faces hurdles, including high costs and competition from cheaper virgin materials.

GreenMatch

Globally, the push towards sustainable tech is gaining momentum. The recycling of e-waste is a growing industry, valued at approximately £43 billion in 2019, and is projected to reach around £50 billion by 2026.

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

The tech industry's carbon footprint is substantial and growing. Digital technology accounts for 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, increasing by about 6% annually. To put this into perspective, let's compare it to everyday activities and items:

  • Sending a short email from a phone generates 0.2g of CO2e, while the same email sent from a laptop doubles the emissions to 0.4g.
  • A long email, crafted over 10 minutes and sent to 100 people, can produce 29g of CO2e.
  • Using a smartphone for an hour daily results in 70kg of CO2e annually. 

When we look beyond our gadgets, the environmental impact of other daily activities becomes apparent:

  • A 250g raw steak from deforested land in Brazil carries a carbon footprint of 17.8kg CO2e.
  • An 800g loaf of locally produced and sold bread has a footprint of 630g CO2e, increasing to 1kg if transported extensively by road.
  • A 5-watt low-energy bulb used for a year results in 28kg of CO2e, while a 100-watt incandescent bulb skyrockets this to 570kg CO2e

Globally, mobile phone usage contributes a staggering 580 million tons of CO2e annually. The average person's annual carbon footprint is around 7 tons of CO2e. The data underscores the need for a worldwide shift towards more sustainable technology use.

Understanding the environmental impact of our digital habits is crucial. We can significantly reduce our carbon footprint by making informed choices, such as optimising email use or switching to energy-efficient bulbs. 

As consumers, we hold the power to drive change, demanding greener practices from tech companies and reducing our reliance on energy-intensive devices.

What Are Alternatives?

In the quest for sustainable and efficient solutions, various alternatives to conventional have emerged. These alternatives challenge the status quo and often offer more sustainable and cost-effective solutions. 

Here's a look at some notable alternatives and why they might be superior in certain contexts.

  1. Face-to-face communication: Personal interactions build stronger relationships and improve empathy.
  2. Traditional Books: Reading paper books reduces eye strain and supports information retention.
  3. Board Games: They encourage social interaction and strategic thinking away from screens.
  4. Outdoor Activities: Engaging with nature has proven health benefits and reduces electronic waste.
  5. Local Libraries: They provide a community space for learning without the need for digital devices.
  6. Handwritten Letters: Personal correspondence fosters meaningful connections and preserves tradition.

Is Technology Better Than Its Alternatives?

While technology offers convenience and global connectivity, its alternatives provide unique advantages. Personal interactions foster deeper connections, reading physical books can improve memory retention, and outdoor activities offer health benefits and reduce carbon footprint.

Face-to-face communication, for example, allows for nuanced expression that technology sometimes fails to capture. Local libraries promote community engagement and equal access to information without the barrier of digital literacy.

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