Growing importance of the ‘Internet of Things’
The internet of things, or IoT, has seen significant growth over the past decade. Essentially, IoT relates to devices which can connect to each other or a network via the internet, as IBM explain:
“In a nutshell, the Internet of Things is the concept of connecting any device (so long as it has an on/off switch) to the Internet and to other connected devices. The IoT is a giant network of connected things and people – all of which collect and share data about the way they are used and about the environment around them.”[i]
As such, IoT includes modern conveniences like smart speakers, robot vacuums, and smart light bulbs, all of which utilise wi-fi or data connections to allow users to remain linked and in control via devices such as mobile phones. It is believed that IoT devices have grown from just 3.6 billion in 2015 to 12.2 billion in 2021[ii], with this same study estimating that last year’s figure will more than double to reach 27 billion in 2025. Analysts IDC expect this figure to be even higher- predicting the number of connected devices will reach 55.7 billion by 2025, of which 75% or 41 billion, will be connected to an IoT platform.
Emissions linked to IoT a growing concern
Not only is there an issue with emissions from the creation (and later disposal) of connected devices, but there are also considerable environmental consequences relating to their energy consumption. Research by the IEA (International Energy Agency) found that on a global scale, connected devices (including any device that can connect to another or a network via the internet) had an annual electricity consumption of 500TWh of energy in 2020, similar to that of France.
According to the IEA, as a whole, “the data centres, data transmission networks and connected devices that underpin digitalisation account for roughly 700 Mt CO2e (including embodied emissions), equivalent to ~2% of global energy related GHG emissions. Since 2010, emissions have grown only modestly despite rapidly growing demand for devices and services, thanks to energy efficiency and electricity system decarbonisation.”[iii]
With forecasts suggesting that the number of these connected devices will only increase, there will be not only an impact felt from the energy requirements of device usage but also the need for greater data storage capacity. In a recent article by the Carbon Trust notes: “A device’s ‘use phase’, or the time it spends being used by the consumer, accounts for up to 85% of its total carbon footprint throughout its lifecycle. This includes battery-powered smart devices, and those plugged into the wall within a customer’s home.”[iv]
Yet, many of these smart devices have the ability to remotely report energy use and allow users to shut them down remotely; arguably, such features should be encouraged and explained to device owners.
Could the cost-of-living crisis play a role in emissions reduction?
With the soaring cost of living, largely driven by high energy prices, many families, businesses, and individuals are trying to cut their energy usage. Much has been offered in the public domain as to how people can reduce consumption, and one topic which comes up frequently is the energy usage of devices left on ‘standby’, as well as mobile phone chargers left on even when the phone is fully charged or unplugged. According to Ovo Energy, so-called ‘vampire energy’ use- where power is being consumed in standby mode, accounts for significant waste of energy annually. Research from Confused.com found that videogame consoles being left on standby cost UK households a combined total of £231million per year[v].
Arguably behaviour change of consumers, likely to be driven by cost saving, could help alleviate a substantial portion of the energy consumption linked to connected devices being left on standby.
Tech giants join forces to combat environmental impact of IoT
Device manufacturers themselves are also being called upon to address the growing environmental challenge connected devices pose. Technology giants Amazon, Meta, Microsoft, Samsung and Sky have joined with the Carbon Trust in an effort to tackle emissions from internet-connected devices.
Forming a secretariat led by the Carbon Trust, the group aims to produce an accurate baseline for reporting energy efficiency improvements and establish rules for matching electricity consumption with renewable energy generation. Further, it hopes to apply technology to optimise the energy use of connected devices by consumers. The hope is that a significant portion of the 500TWh could be reduced, and additional renewable electricity capacity created. Companies will then be able to track the impact of these measures, leading to effective decarbonisation over time.
Development of the secretariat officially begins in September 2022, open to new members for a limited time. It is then expected to be completed in 2023, when the specification will be made publicly available to support an industry-wide drive towards Net Zero.
Hugh Jones, Managing Director at the Carbon Trust, has said:
“The connected device industry is innovative, advanced, and ambitious. It has a critical role to play in Net Zero progress. This product-level approach will provide an open, credible, and united methodology on device data measurement to help drive down use-phase emissions across the sector. We are excited to be at the forefront of this cross-industry collaborative effort.”[vi]
[i] What is the Internet of Things, and how does it work? (ibm.com)
[ii] Number of connected IoT devices growing 18% to 14.4 billion globally (iot-analytics.com)
[iii] Digitalisation – Analysis - IEA
[iv] The Carbon Trust and leading tech companies team up to tackle climate impact of connected devices | The Carbon Trust
[v] Standby Energy: How Much Electricity Do Your Devices Use? | OVO Energy
[vi] The Carbon Trust and leading tech companies team up to tackle climate impact of connected devices | The Carbon Trust
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