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Your smartphone is burning a lot of carbon

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This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Do you know your smartphone’s carbon footprint? You should
  • Green investing is a feel-good moneymaker
  • Wind-solar power just reached a major milestone
  • Reader tips on reducing your environmental footprint

Your smartphone use is burning a lot of carbon

(Sanjay Kanojia/Getty Images/CBC)

We all do it — snuggle up in bed or on the sofa, or maybe during our daily commute, and watch a video clip on our phones. We may even watch an entire movie that way.

It turns out this common, seemingly innocuous act — and our internet use more generally — is leaving a lasting impact on the environment.

In a study published earlier this year, two professors at McMaster University in Hamilton looked at the carbon footprint of the information and communications technologies industry (ICT), which includes the internet.

And it’s a Bigfoot-worthy print.

In the study, the ICT “universe” includes computers, phones and laptops; telecommunications structures, such as satellite dishes and routers; and, crucially, data centres, the backbone of the internet. (What it didn’t include is the Internet of Things, computers in cars and smart TVs. At the moment, that type of data use is still somewhat new, though the study’s authors say it would be figured into future studies.)

McMaster associate Prof. Lotfi Belkhir and his colleague Ahmed Elmeligi found that ICT is responsible for about 1.5 per cent of worldwide carbon emissions. As a comparison, the energy sector accounts for roughly 27 per cent, while agriculture, forestry and other land use make up 25 per cent.

The study suggests that by 2040, ICT’s carbon emissions could account for as much as 14 per cent, which is roughly where the transportation industry is right now.

It might surprise you to know that. The findings surprised Belkhir, too.

Smartphones were by far the worst contributors to tech’s carbon footprint. That’s because of several factors, including the mining activity needed to extract the metals needed to make our phones. For one thing, your phone requires almost 10 times as much precious metals as a laptop or desktop computer.

Also, we just use our phones way more often.

Data can seem invisible to us — especially if you’re on an unlimited plan — but every email, tweet and video lives on a server. With all the servers humming away in data centres, those giant buildings need to be cooled — and the emissions are through the roof.

The increasing prevalence of smartphones is not helping. As the number of users is only likely to grow, Belkhir said we need to rethink how we power communications.

“What needs to change is the way we’re running our data centres,” he said. One of his study’s recommendations: Run those data centres exclusively on renewable energy.

Belkhir believes this is completely doable. He said solar energy is getting ever cheaper, and server farms tend to be located outside urban centres, which are ideal locations for solar and wind installations.

He said consumers also have a role to play. For one thing, he said we should keep our existing phones longer, which would curtail all that mining activity. A more immediate suggestion, however, is for us to reduce our internet use — particularly video, which eats up a ton of data.

That means thinking twice before downloading and watching a movie on our phones.

Said Belkhir, “Maybe going with friends to the movies and watching a movie there on the big screen is actually more environmentally friendly than each one of them watching it on their smartphones.”

Nicole Mortillaro


Missed any issues of What on Earth?

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As always, feel free to send comments to whatonearth@cbc.ca.


The smart money is in green investments

(David Goldman/AP)

New numbers this week reveal a trend that may come as a surprise to many environmentalists: The world’s richest investors are finally embracing their inner treehugger.

Canada’s Responsible Investment Association (RIA) says that last year, for the first time, more than half the money invested in Canada went to sustainable investments.

By RIA’s math, that’s more than $2 trillion. And numbers out of the U.S. are even more eye-popping. The biennial report from the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment calculates that there’s $12 trillion US being put to work on investments in renewable energy and other initiatives seeking to mitigate the effects of climate change.

That’s music to the ears of Toronto-area investment coach Tim Nash, who said that for too long, his clients had a hard-wired bias against green investments, assuming that anything “sustainable” was somehow inferior in the core aim of making money.

“They just assume performance is going to be worse,” Nash said this week, “against all evidence to the contrary.”

For a long time, green investing was seen as something only idealistic hippies were into — not ruthless, profit-hungry hedge funds. But saving the world, it seems, is good for business, which is why the smart money on Wall Street and Bay Street wants in.

Even the capitalists who run Canada’s pension plan are getting in on the action. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) has earmarked $3 billion in the past two years to green energy projects.

For Ben Lambert, CPPIB’s interim head of sustainable investing, the reason is simple.

“Our job is to maximize returns without risk of loss for generations to come … and the research shows that companies that do well on these sustainability issues extend their corporate life and are more likely to create value over the long term.”

Which is why these days, big investors are more likely to put money into an oil company that’s readying for a world without oil than they are to gobble up a pollution-belching mining company that has no plan beyond its next quarterly results.

“It’s about doing the right thing and generating returns,” Lambert said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Pete Evans


The Big Picture: Worldwide solar and wind power

In August, research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that the combined installed capacity of solar and wind power globally had surpassed one terawatt, or 1,000 gigawatts. (That’s roughly the total power capacity of the U.S.) It took about two decades to get here, but Bloomberg NEF estimates it will only take until the middle of 2023 for this figure to double — and that installing the second terawatt will cost 46 per cent less than the first.



You’re doing your part

(David McNew/Getty Images)

In our last newsletter, we asked you to share some of your personal initiatives in reducing your carbon footprint. And you kindly obliged.

Here are some of your examples. We will continue to publish other reader tips.

Claudette Preece of Courtenay, B.C., wrote:

“We have had a heat pump for 16 years and replaced it last winter with a model that will withstand minus–20 temperatures.

“We installed solar panels about three years ago. Thirty-six of them. We got rid of our hot water heaters and installed a gas-fired hot water on-demand system. We have gone from our 14-year-old gas-driven car to a Mitsubishi PHEV. Wanted one that did more mileage on battery but the waiting list was eight months. This does enough mileage on battery to do all my errands and shopping trips. On long trips, if the engine kicks in, it is to recharge the battery, not to run the engine. Since purchasing it May 1st, we have filled it up with gas about five times, and on none of those occasions was it completely empty.”

One reader, who wished to remain anonymous, had a raft of good suggestions, including:

  • Using reusable grocery bags, and keeping them in your trunk so you never forget them!”

  • Carrying a reusable water bottle around at all times, saying there is no need for bottled water, because “municipal tap water is safe and delicious.”

  • She has LED lightbulbs and low-flow showerheads installed at home.

  • She also does clothes swaps, in which she and friends get together and exchange gently used clothing.

She also made a couple of bigger points:

“The 3 Rs are real, and “reduce” is so important. Shop less. Bring less stuff into your house.”

And:

I get out in nature as often as I can, as someone who works behind a desk in an office, to admire its beauty and appreciate it, and improve my physical and mental health.Knowing more about the environment and loving all of its wonderful qualities helps you understand why it must be preserved and protected.

Amen to that.

Finally, Chélie Elsom of Salmon Arm, B.C., wrote in to tell us that she has been so “passionate about plastic pollution” that she started an online petition.

Petition 1834, which is sponsored by Green Party MP Elizabeth May and slated to be tabled in the House of Commons in January 2019, calls for a “National Plastic Strategy.” That includes a ban on “the manufacturing, distribution and use of all plastics that cannot be recycled” and a “Zero Plastic Waste Canada” by 2030, where all plastic packaging is 100 per cent recyclable, reusable or compostable.


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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