Well, here’s an interesting analysis of the lifecycle emissions of a computer. Turns out that computers require something like ten times their weight in fossil fuels to manufacture. Which is an order of magnitude higher than other durable goods, like cars and fridges, which only require about their own weight in fuel to manufacture. Oh, and the flat screen display accounts for the majority of it.

Okay, so I’ll concede that my computer is an order of magnitude more useful to me than a fridge (which after all, only does one thing). But it does mean that if we focus only on power consumption during use, we might be missing the biggest savings opportunities.¬†

The analysis is from the book Computers and the Environment, edited by Kuehr and Williams, and here’s a brief¬†review.


  1. Steve,
    I don’t think that’s too bad: modern computers can be used for a very long time. Maybe not the big servers in Google’s basement, but workstations/laptops (used for mail-typing, web-surfing, etc.) and flat screens certainly can. Also, there are lots of opportunities of second-hand use, upgrade (reusing the display and other parts), as well as recycling.
    A good avenue for Software Engineering is to make programs so efficient that they still run well on old hardware! Assuming that the resource-use of hardware production will one day be reflected in the hardware’s price, this will even become a large viable market.
    You could then make a lot of money with software that runs well on old hardware.

  2. The more I think about it, the less sensible this comparison is. Why fossil fuels used per unit of product weight? Computers are dramatically lighter than both fridges and cars. The dominant trend is miniturization, while cars and fridges have gotten bigger. But that just begs the question: what is an appropriate way to compare them?

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