Assessing the embodied carbon footprint of IoT edge devices with a bottom-up life-cycle approach

Reference Type:

Journal Article

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Published In:

Journal of Cleaner Production

Year:

2021

Author(s):

Thibault Pirson
David Bol

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In upcoming years, the number of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices is expected to surge up to tens of billions of physical objects. However, while the IoT is often presented as a promising solution to tackle environmental challenges, the direct environmental impacts generated over the life cycle of the physical devices are usually overlooked. It is implicitly assumed that their environmental burden is negligible compared to the positive impacts they can generate. Yet, because IoT calls for a massive deployment of electronic devices in the environment, life-cycle assessment (LCA) is an essential tool to leverage in order to avoid further increasing the stress on our planet. Some general LCA methodologies for IoT already exist but quantitative results are still scarce. In this paper, we present a parametric framework based on hardware profiles to evaluate the cradle-to-gate carbon footprint of IoT edge devices. We exploit our framework in three ways. First, we apply it on four use cases to evaluate their respective production carbon footprint. Then, we show that the heterogeneity inherent to IoT edge devices must be considered as the production carbon footprint between simple and complex devices can vary by a factor of more than 150×. Finally, we estimate the absolute carbon footprint induced by the worldwide production of IoT edge devices through a macroscopic analysis over a 10-year period. Results range from 22 to 562 MtCO2-eq/year in 2027 depending on the deployment scenarios. However, the truncation error acknowledged for LCA bottom-up approaches usually lead to an undershoot of the environmental impacts. We compared the results of our use cases with the few reports available from Google and Apple, which suggest that our estimates could be revised upwards by a factor around 2× to compensate for the truncation error. Worst-case scenarios in 2027 would therefore reach more than 1000 MtCO2-eq/year. This truly stresses the necessity to consider environmental constraints when designing and deploying IoT edge devices.