Ending the cycle of ‘pushing new products like smartphones on ever smaller timescales’ should be a top target for the COP26 climate change conference, according to a poll of the IT industry.

Reusing and recycling electronic waste was chosen as the priority policy action to improve tech’s relationship with environment, in a survey by BCS. Legislation on ‘rights to repair’ coming in around the world (including the UK), though patchy, can help achieve this aim. But only if properly promoted and supported by governments, consumers and a professional tech industry, BCS said.

Ending device waste came top of the poll which asked members of the professional body for the IT industry which tech-related actions government and the sector should look to put first.

After e-waste (top of the poll with 30%), IT experts chose carbon transparency reporting (19%), followed by making data centres truly ‘green’ (14%). Granting rights to home working to reduce carbon emissions followed with 13%. Restricting ‘proof of work’ cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which have a large environmental impact, polled at 12%.

A majority (61%) of tech experts also said that they were not confident that IT and digital technologies were being used effectively by industry in the fight against climate change.

A similar proportion (64%) were not confident that the UK workforce currently has the right digital skills to achieve Net Zero.

Consumption rate of electronics is key contributor to e-waste

Alex Bardell, Chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group said:  “Most people working and leading in the IT profession agree that digital technologies should be at the heart of government and industry’s strategy to reach Net Zero. That can be achieved by a tech industry that defines its professionalism by prioritising actions like reducing e-waste, which is already in focus thanks to the chip shortage.

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“Rather than being dependent on new devices as soon as we have a failure, the ‘right to repair’ legislation should be starting to make it easier for people to extend the life of their devices. If the starter motor failed on your car, you would go to the garage and get a new part, rather than chucking the car away.

“The challenge is that the business model for electronics firms is to push their products, like smartphones, on ever smaller time cycles as a way of generating revenue and it really does not need to be this way. It takes combined political, social and commercial will to put the planet ahead of an ever tighter upgrade cycle.”

John Booth, Vice Chair added: “The problems with e-waste are just one of the many problems that need to be addressed in the ICT sector, as well as Data Centre energy efficiency and sustainability, and their response to the climate emergency has been limited so far, although I am hopeful that progress will be made sooner rather than later.”

The consumption rate of electronics is increasing by 3% annually, particularly in areas like the smartphone industry, and is a key contributor to e-waste, according to the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Forum.

According to The Royal Society’s 2020 report, Digital technology, and the planet: Harnessing Computing, ‘to achieve Net Zero nearly a third of the 50 per cent carbon emissions reductions the UK needs to make by 2030 could be achieved through existing digital technology.’

Find out more about Green IT and Net Zero​

Note: This report was generated on 11/10/21. Overall, 1124 BCS members completed this questionnaire during the period 4–11 October 2021. The survey was conducted online.