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Finding Green Electronics: Understanding Carbon Footprint Calculations

12/14/2010 12:00:00 AM

Tags: carbon footprint, impact

This year my daughter included a laptop on her Christmas wish list. I’m doing my research to find the most energy-efficient option—and it’s not easy.

A recent Carnegie Mellon University study found that carbon footprint calculations (determining the amount of CO2 released) are often riddled with large uncertainties—particularly when it comes to electronic goods. Christopher Weber, an adjunct professor in the university's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a research staff member at the Science & Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., found that variables from production and shipping to technology used in creating a product can alter the accuracy of carbon footprint labeling.

laptop keyboard 
Carbon footprint calculations for most electronics aren't reliable enough to base decisions off of. Photo By B. Tse/Courtesy Flickr. 

'Variability in the electricity mixes of different markets led to vastly different impacts of product use and greenhouse gas emissions in different geographic locations,'' says Weber. 'Further complex systems requiring integrated circuits and several generations of technology increase the uncertainty of carbon footprint estimation for electronic goods.''

At this point, Weber says, carbon footprint estimation methodologies are not accurate enough to warrant putting footprint labels on most products. So for now, I’ll look for the Energy Star label and teach my daughter to use the energy-saving settings and to always turn the computer off when she’s not using it.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ll check’s report card to find out which computer manufacturer does the best job of recovering and recycling the machine’s parts at the end of its (long and productive, we hope) life.  

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