That Blue Square Thing

AQA Computer Science GCSE

This page is up to date for the new AQA 8525 syllabus for the 2022 exam.

Ethics - Environmental issues

The growth of the computer industry has a variety of impacts on the natural environment. We generally think about negative impacts, but there are some positive ones as well.

Positive impacts

Technology allows us to monitor the environment more effectively and to analyse data effectively. This, in theory, should be a benefit to the environment. For example, climate monitoring provides data to help understand cimate change and, in theory, plan to change our behaviour as a result.

GPS tracking on endangered species allows them to be protected against poaching and for scientists to understand their behaviour, numbers and movement. This should help from a conservation point of view.

Smart energy devices allow us to control our use of energy in the home more effectively, reducing energy use, whilst computers in vehicles can help reduce carbon emmisions (for example, auto stop features when a car is in a traffic jam.

Negative impacts

Computer require resources to produce - plastics (from oil), metals etc... These are non-renewable resources which, once they're used, are gone. This can be resources as simple as copper in wires - that has to be dug out the ground somewhere and processed. The materials that make touchscreens work include indium tin oxide. This requires indium, a fairly rare metal. This, as well as other rare earth metals, have a limited supply. What happens when we run out? (if you want to know the chemistry behind touchscreens then you can find out at Chemistry World...). And then there's the silicon that goes into processor chips.

All of the processing required to create computers requires energy - often in large quantities. This tends to rely on fossil fuels still, especially in locations such as China where a lot of the manufacturing of computer products goes on. This adds to greenhouse gases which contribute towards global warming. Which has serious environmental impacts of course.

Running computers and charging batteries also requires significant global energy requirements. In particular, data centres require huge amounts of electricity, particularly to power the air conditioning required to cool them. Again, this causes greenhouse gases and, as a result, contributes to global warming. The rise cloud computing and, in particular, of streaming television services has made this a growing issue - see this BBC "Dirty Streaming" clip - March 2020

Computers have a limited lifespan - often very limited as people "upgrade" their devices regularly. This creates waste, some of which is toxic if not dealt with properly, which needs to be disposed of. Toxic waste can cause problems such as water pollution, which can effect water supplies and harm ecosystems, destroying habitats. This can be a particular issue in Less Economically Developed Countries where our waste is increasingly sent to.

It is possible to recycle some of the elements of waste computers - copper from wires,for example. This is expensive and can be difficult, but is important. Or whole devices can simply be reused.