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Climate Change in Electronics: Immediate & Practical Preparations & Solutions

Few people are asking how asking how the world's electronics industry is preparing to operate on a 2° Celsius warmer planet and consumers and corporate customers haven't yet demanded that the electronics industry urgently reduce and reverse that warming. Even so, OEMs need to know these practical methods for slowing (and reversing) climate change while at the same time enlarging market share.

This month, iNEMI’s 2015 roadmap lists numerous eco-design and recycling recommendations for the electronics industry, and GeSI released its Smarter2030 report on the ICT industry's potential for CO2-emission reductions. The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry is among the 10 industries covered in the 2013 UN report titled Geo5 for Business: Impacts of a Changing Environment on the Corporate Sector. Vulnerabilities listed on the three pages covering ICT include flooding, material shortages, irregular energy sources, hampered transportation infrastructure, and more.

The global electronics industry is a huge contributor to emissions that — trapped in the atmosphere — warm the planet and change our climate, and that every other industry relies on electronics to compute, power, move, sell, and operate.

Given the electronics industry's huge opportunities for providing resource-reduction controls, creating renewable-energy solutions, and reducing the industry's own significant environmental footprint, society should put more pressure on the electronics industry to urgently reduce and correct climate change than on most other industries.

The following are insights as to why climate change readiness and mitigation are not yet among the most front-and-center topics in boardrooms, executive suites, Kaizen events, trainings, and performance measures.

A romantic notion about the electronics industry

Perhaps the kid-gloves treatment of the electronics industry relative to reducing climate change owes to the tech industry's image of being a relatively clean industry. People think about electronics' facilities' clean rooms, clean fingernails, and clean rooftops — absent gushing smoke stacks. 

But core to the electronics industry's life cycle are huge amounts of resource-intensive mineral mining, energy and water for transforming minerals into components, transportation of products between supply-chain partners and to distributors  / end-users, employee buildings and travel, embedded and in-use power consumption, and an egregious amount of hazardous e-waste.

Plus, electronics is pervasive in our society, and is no longer a standalone industry. A decade ago when the European Union announced its RoHS Directive restricting six hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, many USA electronics industry managers felt victimized. “Why pick on the electronics industry when other industries have far more environmental impacts?” But electronic devices permeate our homes, workplaces, transportation mode, governments, and hobbies, and now are embedded in our inventories, tools, clothes, bodies, and more. It's clear that the “electronics industry” (1) has more opportunities (and responsibilities) than ever before for reducing environmental impacts, and (2) would bring society to a halt if supply chains, energy, and water falter owing to insufficient planning for climate change's enormous changes to business as usual.

There's a romantic notion that the electronics industry is a savior for society — automating and connecting people and things, and always growing at an enviable rate. It's true that much of this automation and connection can reduce societal problems and reduce carbon emissions and that technology advances have kept up demand for more products. But without loud and persistent customer demands for the electronics industry to reduce and reverse climate change everywhere electronics are found, then electronics industry executives are not likely to prioritize the numerous immediate and practical solutions.

Practical methods for Slowing and Helping to Reverse Climate Change

Having trained more than 1,000 electronics engineers and their managers in design for environment sustainability — principles that result also in lower costs, higher reliability, reduced risks, and competitive advantages — I'd like to offer sample strategies for the electronics industry's survival of and ability to help reverse climate change:

1. Design products to consume the lowest possible power, and to generate power during use

  • Survive climate change as power becomes less reliable by reducing the power your suppliers need to manufacture your products and your customers need to operate them.
  • Help Reverse Climate Change by enabling customers to produce renewable power while using your products

2. Minimize the materials in your products, and maximize local, recycled and renewable content

  • Survive climate change by reducing resource-intensive materials from your supply chain, and shield yourselves from rare-earth and mining-intensive materials' price hikes and shortages; instead, keep material costs steady and predictable
  • Help reverse climate change by reducing reliance on mined materials, with their heavy energy, water, and transportation footprints, and conflict-inducing supply.

3. Lease hardware instead of selling it (modeling the software industry's migration from customer-installed software to Software as a Service). Design leased hardware to be competitively reliable, upgradeable, refurbishable, and recyclable.

  • Survive climate change by generating more revenue per gram of hardware manufactured based on collecting years worth of lease fees from first, second, and subsequent customers. Stay connected with customers through the life of your products, and mine the products at the end of their usefulness for valuable materials
  • Help Reverse climate change by leveraging existing hardware longer — reducing CO2-intensive activities such as mining, manufacturing, logistics, and waste.

Enlarging Market Share While Reducing / Correcting Climate Change

Each of the above methods helps leading electronics companies to enlarge market share.  Designing products to consume the lowest possible power captures market share away from status-quo or nominally efficient products. By minimizing products' materials and making renewable choices you will attract customers who increasingly seek more portable and responsible products. Leasing easy-to-upgrade products reduces competitors' chances of getting your customers to switch brands as technology advances.

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