With the release of the new sets of Pixel environmental reports, we analyse Google's device specific environmental updates going back to 2017 to find out what steps are they taking to make Pixel smartphones more sustainable and what are the predictions for the total greenhouse gas emissions over the lifetime of the Pixel phones.
We commend Apple for their timely release of their product environmental reports, and even though they aren’t always on track of keeping the total emissions of iPhones down, they are making steps when it comes to supply chain, facility management and most importantly, transparency. Whereas Samsung and many other phone manufacturers provide little to no data about the environmental cost of creating and using their smartphones.
We should hold Google to a higher standard, as they are a big player and they market themselves as a more socially conscious company, so their environmental commitments across their whole Pixel range should be heavily scrutinised.
Note: This article is regularly updated with every new Google Pixel release.
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Due to CO2 data of the first Pixel generation still pending, we have only included product specific data starting from the Pixel 2 onwards in our graph featured above. The graph shows the CO2 data available for all the Pixel phones from 2017 to 2022.
The 2022 flagships were first to receive a Gold UL 110 certification (US) for mobile phones which assesses materials and energy use, manufacturing and most importantly extension of useful life (repairability) and end of life (recycling) management.
We expected the Pixel 7 lineup to cross the 90kg of CO2-e mark once again, but Google delivered a Pixel 7 with 70kg of lifetime CO2-e which is 25kg less than 2021 model and the Pixel 7 Pro has seen a reduction of 10kg of CO2-e compared to the Pixel 6 Pro.
The difference in carbon footprint between the two 2022 models is more pronounced in this generation and represents a gap of 15kg of CO2-e. If you're keen to have a phone with smaller carbon footprint, we'd recommend to choose the Pixel 7 over the Pixel 7 Pro.
Other noticeable changes in the Pixel 7 lineup's carbon profile is the consumer use and emissions associated with it which now contribute 12% to the Pixel's total footprint (down from 14% on the Pixel 6) and is the lowest percentage it's ever been. However production emmisions are still on the rise, reaching 84% contribution of the Pixel's total carbon footprint.
Although the Pixel 6a has been designed with recycled aluminium in its housing with the aim to "reduce its carbon footprint" as Google highlighted it in Pixel 6a's report, the carbon footprint reduction was not achieved when comparing to the Pixel 5a (5G). Instead it grew back up to Pixel 4a (5G) levels, amounting to 65kg of CO2-e.
Google's Tensor chip's technology and software efficiencies are bringing the carbon footprint of using the phone down, but these reductions are wiped out by increasing emissions in production and more often than not leads to evergrowing carbon footprint of Pixel devices.
With the Pixel 6 series Google once again delivered a Pixel phone with the highest lifetime carbon emissions. The Pixel 6 Pro's emission total at 95kg which is an increase of 31% over the Pixel 2 released in 2017 and a 10% increase compared to Pixel 5.
In terms of repairability, it appears Pixel phones have been stagnant with 6/10 score from iFixit for several generations. Google's lack of attention to boosting modularity and repairability of its Pixel lineup is concerning as it does not allign with their commitment of being a carbon-free company.
The Pixel 6 duo uses 100% recycled aluminium in its housing which is one of the structural components in a phone. But the weight of materials used to make Pixel phones is growing, from 151g for the Pixel 5 to 210g for the Pixel 6 Pro, which negatively impacts the energy consumed during manufacturing. With phones becoming larger and more complex, Google's efforts of incorporatating recycled materials are lacking behind.
We're seeing a reduction of 5kg in lifetime CO2 emissions with the Pixel 5a (5G) over its predecessor, the Pixel 4a (5G). This reduction mainly comes from Google cutting the emissions from transportation and not the introduction of more recycled metals in the build or changes in production processes. In comparison to its flagship sibbling the Pixel 5, 5a emits 25kg of carbon less which once again highlights that budget lineups are less carbon intensive than more premium handsets. This is something we have also observed in iPhones.
Using the Pixel 5a is where 19% of its carbon emissions come from, which is a slight increase over 2020 model (17%). Where Pixel 4a was build with 47% post consumer recycled plastic in its mechanical parts, 19% of materials used to make the Pixel 5a are recycled.
The Pixel 5a has been awarded with EPEAT Gold rating, but this isn't a trustworthy indication of its sustainability, given that it has a poor repairability score of 6/10.
As you might expect the Pixel 5 continued the flagship trend of ever-increasing lifetime emissions per device, despite the improvements to the charging mechanism and the incorporated power management in Android. But again, no real improvement to be found in the production or manufacturing of the new Pixel 5.
This continuous increase of the total emissions of the device is clearly unsustainable. In a year when most countries are agreeing to limit their carbon and companies are clambering to buy carbon offsetting, wouldn’t it be more beneficial to see a reduction in the actual impact they are having by producing these yearly updates?
Google took a long time to release the environmental report for the Pixel 5, which suggests they were not keen on making buyers aware of the device's impact, at least not at launch. The team at iFixit have ranked Pixel 5's repairability with 6/10, which is a slight improvement over 2019 flagships.
With the Pixel 4a and the 5G version, we would have been able to see the direct impact of introducing 5G, however, the 5G version had a larger screen, different camera modules and even a larger battery, so a direct comparison can’t be made despite the similarities in the name.
The Pixel 4a 5G saw a sharp increase to 65KG total emissions, which is a 44.4% increase on the base Pixel 4a. When a Pixel 5a gets released later in 2021, we expect it to come with 5G support as standard, so the emissions either will stay the same or increase.
With 45KG total emissions, the Pixel 4a is the most environmentally friendly Google Pixel phone right now, and with the emergence of 5G, probably ever. A stripped back “a” model with fewer high specifications and a plastic back naturally requires fewer resources to create and has a lower impact on the environment which is why the Pixel 4a actually hasn’t increased in total emissions compared to the Pixel 3a.
This is positive news when other models in Google's portfolio have ever increasing envioronmental impact and carbon emissions of flagship phones across all manufacturers are still on average increasing, yearly, despite optimisations.
Apple release their iPhone environmental reports as they announce new releases, the Pixel 4 Environmental reports took an astounding amount of time to finally be released.
The Pixel 4 was came out with very similar specifications to the Pixel 3, top of the range internals and glass back. Again, with the increase in size and capacities, the Pixel 4 was always going to have higher emissions than the plastic Pixel 3a. However, to feature an increase by 30KG of CO2-e and to still be included in the EPEAT Gold certification without official responsible takeback programmes, Google are failing their sustainability standards.
The Pixel 4 XL has the same ethical sourcing and 100% recycled packaging, but has an increase of the total carbon emissions throughout its 3 year projected lifetime by another 5KG, bringing its total carbon footprint to 80KG CO2-e.
Image: Screenshot from iFixit
Sustainability was a massive focus at the Pixel 4 event in 2019, with Google promising $150 million on renewable energy projects and detailed the developments they’ve made in their NEST products. However, very little was mentioned in regard to the environmentally friendly aspects of the Pixel 4 and Google's plans moving forward with their Pixel lineups.
The Pixel 3a is another EPEAT Gold rated device, with total emissions of 45KG. To put that into perspective, only the iPhone SE from 2016 has a lifetime carbon emission as low as that.
The Pixel 3a would be a serious contender as one of the most environmentally friendly smartphones available today if it was built with some durability and repairability in mind. It has no IP rating and the inconsiderate placement of the internal ribbons make repair that much more hazardous.
With the Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL, Google supposedly improved their operations to get the gold EPEAT rating. We have discussed our concern of the United States sustainability certification and there are very minimal changes from the Pixel 2 to Pixel 3 from the surface point of view. iFixit also considering the Pixel 3 range less repairable than the Pixel 2 is and, in our opinion, Pixel 3 isn't worthy of the upgrade to the Gold rating.
Registered with the EPEAT silver award for sustainability, the Pixel 2 was a positive step for the Search Engine giant, providing more detail about the key features that reduce the devices impact on the environment. These include a mercury free display, arsenic free glass and no PVC. Google has voluntarily reduced the usage of these substances as well as meeting global regulations to restrict the use of harmful substances such as cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and many more.
With 66.4kg total emissions over the three-year life cycle, the Pixel 2 has emissions lower than 75% of released iPhones.
The Pixel 2 XL is expected to emit 71.5KG over the course of its three-year lifecycle, the same three-year lifecycle as Apple expect from their products. So seeing the XL model has a much lower emissions than the Plus models of iPhone is really encouraging.
Unlike the later products, specific product environmental report for the first generation Pixel phone has not been released to this day, 6 years post release. That’s not to say that Google hasn’t always tried to optimise their processes, in fact they have recorded their efficiencies as far back as 2007. But it is only recently that companies are taking a more granular approach at assessing environmental impact of their products, making sure that all their supply chains are also compliant with their increasing environmental standards. So seeing no report about the original Pixel is concerning at least. What's the hold up, Google?
Google taking an absolute age to release the reports speaks volumes to what should be a laser focus following the release of new Pixel phones. Kate Brandt isn’t holding the same conversations in the spotlight as Apple's Lisa Jackson and we want to see more from Google's Sustainability Officer, pushing sustainability of Google's products in the public spotlight and taking a stance beyond the still very distant 2030 targets.
Although the Pixel 7 lineup did not set a new record of lifetime carbon footprint, the trend of increasing emissions in production is going in the wrong direction, with the Pixel 6 Pro being the highest carbon offender and the Pixel 6a climbing what should have an opposite effect since it's a budget lineup where flagship components are reused.
The Pixel 4 and later environmental reports took months to publish after release of the devices. This suggests Google aren't considering sustainability as a part of the purchasing decision for their customers.
It’s clearly a tougher job at Google, they are obviously a different size company and have the search and advertising space to look after, however, the comparable size of the product offering and the accumulative buying power of Alphabet and Google should enable measurable improvements in this space.
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