The Negative Impact of Technology on the Environment

May 20, 2024 • Zachary Amos


It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without technology. From computers to cars to smartphones, tech has become an essential part of nearly every aspect of life. Have you ever stopped to consider the negative impact of technology on the environment, though?

We often view technology as a means to improve our lives, and in many cases, that’s mostly true. Even “green” tech may not be all that eco-friendly, though. So how exactly does technology negatively impact the environment?

1. Emissions

Perhaps the most significant negative side-effect of tech on the environment is the pollution it generates. Your laptop and phone may not directly release any emissions, but generating all the electricity they use does. Most energy comes from fossil fuels, so the more energy we use, the more emissions we cause.

Internet functions, like using cellular data on your phone, rely on data centers. These massive server networks use an equally huge amount of electricity. How much? User devices represented around 57% of GHG emissions in 2020.

The production and shipping of technology also leads to more emissions. Factories need energy and trucks need diesel. As the world buys new gadgets, it means more emissions from the manufacturing and logistics industries. Unfortunately, since the advent of electricity, technology and pollution have gone hand-in-hand. Pollution is a perfect example of new technology having a negative impact on sustainability.

2. Depletion of Resources

Creating our gadgets requires a lot of resources, which can harm the environment as well. The materials in technology all come from somewhere, so using too much can deplete the world’s natural resources. Perhaps the biggest negative environmental impact of tech in this regard is habitat destruction.

Even if a factory uses all renewable, sustainably-source materials, it still needs space. Making the space for a new facility often involves things like deforestation. Clearing all this land means that the animals in the area lose their homes, which can lead to endangerment.

A lot of gadgets contain minerals that companies need to mine from the earth. Removing too many of these can offset the area’s natural balance. Even if that’s not an issue, the mining process is typically one that involves a lot of pollutants. Just the creation of a device is one of the greatest examples of how technology can negatively impact the environment.

3. Hazardous Waste

Another negative impact technology has on the environment is in waste management. New electronics come out frequently, which leads to users disposing of their old ones to buy the newest editions. That’s all well and good if they recycle them properly, but that’s not the case a lot of the time.

When it comes to disposing old electronics, you may not know how to recycle them properly. It’s easier to just throw them in the garbage. This can be damaging, though, as many electronics contain toxic metals, which can be harmful if they leak into the environment.

4. Habitat Destruction

    Building tech infrastructure like server farms often requires significant land use changes, which can lead to deforestation and the disruption of wildlife habitats. When these large data centers are constructed, vast land areas are cleared, sometimes destroying forests to extract the materials needed for technology.

    This deforestation removes trees and displaces wildlife, affecting entire ecosystems. By being aware of these impacts, you can understand the environmental cost of expanding tech infrastructure and the importance of seeking more sustainable practices in the tech industry.

    5. Climate Change

      Tech-related activities contribute significantly to global warming through greenhouse gas emissions, with technologies like data centers, AI processing and cryptocurrency mining being major culprits. These activities increase the carbon footprint, exacerbating global climate issues.

      Fortunately, carbon capture and storage technologies offer a promising solution, capable of capturing hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 each year.

      This technology can mitigate some of the damage. However, the long-term effects of excessive greenhouse gas emissions include rising global temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events and shifting climate patterns. Understanding these impacts shows the importance of adopting and supporting cleaner technologies to protect the planet.

      6. Chemical Exposure

        Tech manufacturing often involves toxic chemicals like lead and mercury, posing significant health risks to workers and nearby communities. These substances can lead to severe health issues, including respiratory problems and neurological damage. 

        Managing and mitigating chemical waste is a complex challenge, as improper disposal can contaminate soil and water sources, further endangering public health and the environment. By being aware of these risks, you can understand the importance of advocating for safer manufacturing practices and stringent waste management protocols in the tech industry.

        7. Energy Consumption

          Data centers and servers require enormous amounts of energy, with projections indicating that by 2036, their energy consumption in the U.S. could reach 260 TWh, which would be six percent of the country’s total power use. This high electricity demand, often from fossil fuels, significantly contributes to carbon emissions.

          Technologies like cryptocurrency mining, artificial intelligence processing and cloud storage are particularly energy-intensive, demanding continuous power to operate efficiently. Understanding the scale of energy consumption and its environmental impact helps you appreciate the urgent need for more sustainable energy solutions in the tech industry.

          8. Water Usage

            Tech manufacturing and cooling systems consume large amounts of water, significantly impacting local water resources and availability. For instance, producing semiconductors and cooling data centers require substantial water usage, which can strain local supplies. Industries like electronics manufacturing and cloud computing have particularly high water footprints.

            This intense demand can lead to water scarcity, affecting communities and ecosystems. Understanding the water consumption of these industries lets you appreciate the importance of developing water-efficient technologies and practices to ensure sustainable water management.

            A Way Forward

            Thankfully, it’s not all bad news with technology and the environment. While there are definite negative impacts of tech on the environment, technology might also provide a way forward. One of the most promising examples of this is in renewable energy.

            Thanks to advances in technology, renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels in several areas now. Over time, this tech will improve, making it even more affordable. With this monetary advantage, renewables could finally overtake fossil fuels, making energy consumption less of an environmental issue.

            Many new technologies focus on offering more energy-efficient processes than their older counterparts. As the general public grows more concerned about the environment, more tech companies will pursue greener initiatives like this. 

            Balancing Technology and Sustainability

            Understanding the negative impact of technology on the environment is the first step in going green. Technology can be a helpful asset in sustainability, but only if we use it right. Knowing the environmental risks tech presents can help push towards a greener future.

            Technology and the environment are more connected than you may realize. If you understand these connections, though, you can do your part in pursuing sustainability.

            Original Publish Date 7/8/2020 — Updated 05/20/2024

            Our conversation on tech and sustainability continues in How Does the Internet of Things Affect the Environment?