This week’s COP25 Climate Change Conference is being hyped as a potential turning point in the world’s protection of the environment. While political leaders descended on London last week for the NATO summit in Hertfordshire, environmental leaders and activists are in Madrid to discuss the environmental challenges that will outlast these political administrations, and outlive the leaders themselves.
However, is the climate conversation suffering from its singular focus on carbon emissions, and developing huge, dangerous blind spots towards other environmental threats like electronic waste? It is a point I have been raising awareness of for many years, and hope that at last, the environmental danger of our old computers, iPhones and power banks will be taken as seriously as that of our outdated coal mines.
There is huge political support for action on the environment - perhaps more so than ever before. The UK government has recently declared a national climate emergency, as well as committing to cutting greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero by the year 2050. Internationally, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres says the "point of no return is no longer over the horizon."
This political support is mirrored with a mainstream media fixation the likes of which the climate campaigners of just a few years ago could only have dreamed of. The climate is now headline-grabbing news - and a large part of that is down to Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
Her eloquent and impassioned advocacy has allowed the climate movement to garner the kind of sustained media attention required for real change. This has even led to some in the political class showing tolerance of, if not tacit support for, acts of civil disobedience like those carried out by Extinction Rebellion protestors in London recently.
As passion and momentum builds, more focus has been put onto pushing through change. Less attention, however, has been placed on the strategic focus of these efforts. Carbon emissions are a huge part of the climate challenge - but they are only part of the story.
So much of the climate debate has been around framing and ultimately winning the argument, that the content of the arguments themselves has sometimes taken a back seat.
Climate change deniers - a label used to also describe anyone who acknowledges climate change but queries how much of it is man-made - view their opponents as dreamy tree-hugging hippies with no sense of economic or political realism. The climate activists, on the other hand, view deniers as paid stooges who are taking positions that no one in good conscience could adopt.
Added to this, there is an ethical question over whether emerging markets like China and India should be denied the opportunity for high-carbon industrial growth - an opportunity that the developed economies of Europe and North America have enthusiastically seized in past generations.
This entire debate, however, neglects environmental issues other than carbon emissions. Although greenhouse gases are a big part of the story and perhaps even responsible for the majority of climate change, the environment is facing other challenges that are unfortunately being neglected.
We will have to change the way we eat. We will have to change the way we live. We will also have to change the way we use - and dispose of - technology.
Tech waste is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions about the environment. Some would even say it is a ticking environmental time bomb; the problem is, no one can hear the ticking.
There are 9.5 billion mobile phones in the world. There are more mobiles in the world than there are people, and those phones are a particular threat to the global environment. They are often designed with planned obsolescence, meaning that once we upgrade after a year or two, our old phones often end up in our desk drawers and eventually landfill.
In most cases, they are designed to be difficult to repair, meaning that once they do break they are thrown away rather than re-used. Most importantly, they are packed with a variety of dangerous substances (to both the environment and humans) like lead, mercury and even Arsenic. It is essential that the environmental lobby places tech waste at the centre of their campaigns, and convinces political leaders to support them.
In my years of experience designing sustainable tech, I have been surprised at how little awareness there is of this, both within the industry and across broader society. It is high time we put as much thought into the long-term post-carbon environment we will inherit, as we do into reducing carbon emissions in the short term.
It is essential that the industry embraces - either through conscience or regulation - responsible re-design of tech to make it easier to repair, as well as safe to dismantle and recycle. There is no reason why smartphones cannot last five (or even 10 years) rather than just a year or two. Hardware manufacturers must take responsibility for the entire lifecycle, including recycling. This will incentivise them to make products that last. Smartphones also include small amounts of precious metals including gold - meaning that there is a financial incentive to develop a process that is currently prohibitively expensive.
In Madrid this week, there will be lots of talk about the harm of greenhouse gases, but less discussion of the dangers of the iPhones that are used to discuss these emissions online.
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