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Calculating the cradle-to-gate emissions of IoT devices

The ICT sector has been exponentially growing due to the increasing demand for new and advanced products and services. Among these are IoT devices, which have been being deployed in huge amounts to enable the development of smart technologies. Smart homes, smart cities, smart mobility and e-health are just a few examples of applications. IoT devices are usually seen as a promising solution to tackle environmental issues and lead to less resource-intensive societies. Indeed, they can help optimize systems to achieve a more efficient use of resources. For example, smart thermostats may save warming and cooling energy in buildings.
However, what are the environmental impacts directly generated throughout the life cycle of IoT devices?
Thibault Pirson and David Bol from the Catholic University of Louvain tried to answer this question, by estimating the cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of IoT devices. To do so, they adopted a parametric framework based on hardware profiles to model devices belonging to different type categories and with different levels of complexity. In this way, they calculated the carbon emissions being for example 0.6-3.2 kgCO2eq for the production of an occupancy sensor, 3.8-14.9 kgCO2eq for a home-connected assistant, and 5.4-19.5 kgCO2eq for a smart watch. Considering all the device types examined in the study, the production carbon footprint resulted ranging from a minimum of 0.3 kgCO2eq for the simplest device to a maximum of 47.41 kgCO2eq for the most complex.
Looking at a single device, these values could seem not particularly relevant. However, it must be taken into account that the number of IoT products is huge, and is expected to soar (from 5 billion in 2020 up to 200 billion in 2030, according to the statistics). Pirson and Bol calculated that the resulting absolute carbon footprint generated worldwide would range from a minimum of 22 MtCO2eq/year up to a maximum of 1124 MtCO2eq/year in 2027, depending on the scenario (based on the number and level of complexity of the devices; see the figure below). This last value would correspond to as much as 1.9% of 2019-level worldwide greenhouse gas emissions (59.1 GtCO2eq, UNEP), which highlights the urgent need to consider environmental issues when designing and deploying new IoT devices. 

To know more about the research methodology and results, see the research paper by Pirson and Bol. 

(a) Yearly deployment of new IoT devices based on the trends in (b) which represents the cumulative number of IoT devices, according to most popular market studies and predictions. Dashed lines are an extrapolation performed by the authors. (c–e) Macroscopic analysis of the annual carbon footprint generated by the production of IoT edge devices for different massive IoT deployment scenarios, based on (a).
Source: Assessing the embodied carbon footprint of IoT edge devices with a
bottom-up life-cycle approach
, Thibault Pirson and David Bol, Catholic University of Louvain
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