Polar Bears and PCs: Technology’s Unintended Consequences

How Does an iPod Affect a Polar Bear?

Photo courtesy of Amanda Graham (Yukon White Light) via Flickr.

When we talk about the problems of global climate change, we tend to focus on cars and coal-burning power plants as major contributors. Yet there are other significant players, including consumer electronics. The number of cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, and flat-screen TVs is increasing rapidly, and not just in wealthier nations. It is estimated that one in nine people in Africa has a cell phone – and those numbers are expected to continue growing.

A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that new devices such as MP3 players, cell phones, and flat-screen TVs will triple energy consumption. Two hundred new nuclear power plants would be needed just to power all the TVs, iPods, PCs, and other devices expected to be used by 2030.

For example, consider televisions. The IEA estimates that 2 billion TVs will soon be in use across the world (an average of 1.3 TVs for every household with electricity). TVs are also getting bigger and being left on for longer periods of time. IEA predicts a 5 percent annual increase in energy consumption between 1990 and 2030 from televisions alone.

While consumer electronics is the fastest growing area, it is also the area with the least amount of policies to control energy efficiency. Total greenhouse gas emissions for electronic gadgets is currently at about 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. If nothing is done, the IEA estimates that the figure will double to about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. However, the agency says that existing technologies could reduce this figure by 30-50 percent at little cost. Allowing consumers to regulate energy consumption based on the features they actually use, minimum-performance standards, and easy-to-read energy labels can help consumers make smarter energy choices about their personal electronics.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

This story connects to two National Science Education Standards domains: Science and Technology and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives. The Science and Technology content standard states:

Technological solutions have intended benefits and unintended consequences. Some consequences can be predicted, others cannot.

The Science in Personal and Social Perspectives content standard includes resource use and depletion, human-induced and naturally occurring hazards, and science and technology in society.

Ask students to consider electronic gadgets – cell phones, digital cameras and video cameras, MP3 players, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and so forth. Have students brainstorm the benefits of these devices. Easier communication, access to data, entertainment, and mobility will probably come up. Then ask students to brainstorm “costs” or negative characteristics. Expense will certainly be mentioned, but will the energy cost?

If you have access to an electric power monitor such as a Kill-a-Watt, you can have students plug in different gadgets and compare power consumption. This simple activity can give rise to a number of inquiry-based investigations, such as: What’s the most energy-efficient MP3 player?; Do laptops and desktops consume the same amount of power?; Does screen size (on an MP3, cell phone, laptop, or TV) affect power consumption?; and so on.

Share some of the figures from the IEA report with students. Discuss the idea that making technology (cell phones, laptops and Internet access) available to more people is a good thing, but there are intended and unintended consequences. Greater access to technology enables widespread communication and promotes education, but also requires more energy – most of which comes from fossil fuels. Burning those fossil fuels releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change and causing Arctic sea ice decline. So all those iPods do impact polar bears after all.

Rather than leave students discouraged, present them with a challenge. Remind them of the many benefits of technology and acknowledge that electronic gadget use will continue to grow rapidly. How can science and technology address the unintended environmental consequences of these tools? Assign small groups of students a particular piece of technology and have them brainstorm ideas that would promote energy efficiency – either on the part of the consumer or the manufacturer, or both. Have groups present their solutions to the class and discuss them. What common solutions were raised? What can students and their families do now to use their electronic devices in a responsible manner?

Here are some related resources from the Middle School Portal 2: Energy Sources, The Power of Electricity,  What is Happening to Polar Bears? Real Data, Claims, and Evidence. The October 2008 issue of the free online magazine Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears included articles about natural resources, the NEED project, and energy efficiency activities for home and school.

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This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published June 1, 2009 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.