Can mobile technology solve our e-waste problem?

A new report claims mobile is one of the key technologies to tackle climate change. But is it already too late?
Environment, Climate, Climate change, Global warming, Sustainability, Waste, E-waste, Mobile, Future, Society, Latin America, GSMA, Pollution, Emissions, Solutions, Globalisation


Top image: People working in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana.

Admit it: our tech is killing us – and killing our planet.

But we already know this – after all, you only need to look up to see the evidence (or look at those horrifying images if e-waste dumps in places like Nigeria and Ghana). And while there are promising innovations that could help to potentially one day ease the burden (such as 3D printers made from e-waste, like the WoeLab out of the West African nation of Togo), the issue is still only getting worse; if we don’t do something soon, the sufferings of our planet will only continue to cause us greater harm.

So, it may seem a bit oxymoronic to hear that mobile technologies can help tackle climate change and develop smart solutions to managing our technological growth. But guess what? That’s exactly what a new report is claiming. Cue the controversy.

According to a new report commissioned by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), mobile will be one of the key technologies to tackle climate change and help develop smart solutions to ensure responsible economic growth across Latin America. The report, titled “Technology for Climate Action in Latin America and the Caribbean - How ICT and Mobile Solutions Contribute to a Sustainable, Low-Carbon Future,” analyses how the information communication technology (ICT) industry can help enable the reduction of carbon emissions – which, of course, are a major cause of global climate change. The report also outlines how big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) can help address climate change and protect the environment, and further highlights how industry and governments can tackle issues such as electronic waste (e-waste). 

“Addressing climate change is one of the most urgent concerns that the world faces today, and one that cannot be ignored,” says Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA. “Mobile operators and others within the mobile ecosystem are delivering a vast range of programmes and initiatives that contribute to delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including helping to combat climate change and its impacts. Indeed, SDG 13 (Climate Action) is one of the SDGs where operators are making the strongest contribution.” 

Juan Antonio Ketterer, chief of the connectivity, markets and finance division at the Inter-American Development Bank, expands on the importance of combatting climate change. “Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. To prevent these effects from occurring, entrepreneurs are working collaboratively with policymakers, financial institutions and civil society organisations to leverage the use of new digital technologies. Thanks to this effort, it is now feasible to design more efficient transport networks, provide more resilient infrastructure, improve resource management, implement smart energy grids and enable precision agriculture.”

Latin American examples

Mobile technologies and the ICT industry have the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions with a strong commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy, according to the report. The report also says this is the way forward for the digital industry to align itself with the Paris Agreement to fight climate change, and help try and keep global temperatures from not rising more than two degrees Celsius.

In Latin America specifically, mobile operators can focus on initiatives to reduce energy consumption and contribute to environmental protection initiatives, such as campaigns to reduce deforestation and the development of services to protect wildlife. When it comes to big data and the IoT, the report says they have the potential to be the drivers for climate change solutions, assisting with the transport, manufacturing, agriculture, building, energy and other sectors in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the efficient use of resources while protecting the environment.

The report also cites examples where the mobile industry and ICT is already being harnessed to help improve things. One such example is in São Paulo, Brazil, where telecommunications company Telefónica launched a big data pilot to track human mobility, assess its impact on air quality, and gauge the health and well-being of inhabitants. Using data, it has been possible to predict pollution problems up to two days in the megacity (the most populous in both the Western Hemisphere and south of the Equator, with more than 30 million people in its surrounding megalopolis) before they might occur. This, in turn, allows local government officials to take precautions to protect public health, such as guiding traffic via alternative routes and advising vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, young people and those with respiratory conditions, of areas where high airborne pollution is expected.

Tackling e-waste

The report reveals that the amount of electronic waste generated globally reached an estimated 46,000 kilotonnes – equivalent to 46 million tonnes – in 2017 alone. Latin America accounted for about nine percent of the worldwide total. It was also estimated that one percent of the of the total e-waste generated in the region was directly associated with mobile phones. But new data from United Nations University notes that Latin American e-waste is expected to grow 10 percent annually until 2020 – and, of course, any e-waste is too much.

The report goes on to state that Latin American and Caribbean governments can improve incentives for recycling and reusing electric and electronic equipment. Recycling and reuse decreases energy used in the production of electronic equipment, since it reduces the demand of virgin materials, the sourcing of which is very energy-intensive (plus, not exactly great for human rights). This reduces greenhouse gas emissions and cuts back on the amount of e-waste going to landfills. To move further toward a circular economy (which, of course, is much more sustainable), governments in the region will need to implement additional policies.

“ICT and mobile solutions are in the process of addressing the challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Renat Heuberger, CEO of South Pole, which helped put together the report. “Forward-thinking companies that integrate efforts to reduce fossil fuel use, drive resource efficiency, increase renewable energy and alignment with the SDGs into their business planning will benefit from lower risks, increased savings, and stronger brand value.”

Not to mention help reduce the harm we’re doing to the planet we call home.

Check out the report here.

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