Apple M4 Release Charting Progress Towards Sustainability Goals

By Stephen Russell

Apple M4 Release Charting Progress Towards Sustainability Goals
 
 

TechInsights’ analysis of the iPad Pro featuring Apple’s M4 processor classified the chip as “instantly putting it at the top of the computing industry for on-device AI” and that “Apple has captured the attention of the industry in a way other companies' envy.” Apple’s release announcement highlights several developments from a sustainability perspective, reiterating the aim to be ”carbon neutral across the entire manufacturing supply chain and life cycle of every product by 2030.”

We see significant progress towards Apple’s own sustainability goals with more to look forward to over the next year, particularly the promise to use recycled cobalt in batteries across Apple’s entire product range by 2025. Unlike Apple's last major product launch, which highlighted the Apple Watch Series 9 as being carbon neutral, the iPad Pro announcement does not mention carbon neutrality. This omission may indicate that Apple is facing challenges in achieving its goal of full carbon neutrality by 2030.

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Apple Market Leading in Sales. How About Sustainability?

TechInsights’ tablet market data shows Apple to have the largest global market share in terms of tablet shipments, with an estimated 35.4% of the market in Q1 2024. We predict Apple’s lead to remain and even increase by the end of 2025, although total market shipments of iPads slipped from 63.5 million units in 2022 to 52.1 million units in 2023. We expect shipments to rise again, reaching 64 million units in 2025 driven in part by the release of new models featuring the M4 processor.

In terms of carbon footprint, which are typically reported in CO2e, it is difficult to make direct comparisons between vendors. Firstly, not all manufacturers disclose a detailed life-cycle assessment (LCA) and those that do use different methodologies.

To their credit, Apple is more transparent than most. Apple claims a 37% reduction totaling 61 kg CO2e from their baseline for the new iPad Pro 13-inch model (i.e. no clean electricity used in manufacturing beyond standard availability in the grid for region of manufacture). Looking a little deeper we can see the 11-inch model with a 256 GB configuration claims 93 kg CO2e while the equivalent 4th generation model had 107 kg CO2e and 3rd generation 112 kg CO2e. The major carbon footprint savings are summarized as follows:

  • 100% fiber-based packaging
  • 100% recycled aluminum in the enclosure
  • 100% recycled rare earth metals in all magnets
  • 100% recycled gold plating and tin soldering in “multiple” printed circuit boards (PCB)
  • All PCBs are free of mercury, brominated flame retardants and PVC

 

Apple has previously set ambitious sustainability targets such as being carbon neutral across the life cycle of all products by 2030, removing all plastic from packaging and using 100% recycled cobalt in batteries by 2025.

 

Cobalt Battery Target Approaching

Last year we discussed Apple’s aim of using recycled cobalt in their battery products, this is a commendable aim with the impact of cobalt usage being significant. In 2022 up to 70% of the world’s cobalt production found its way into batteries in either electric vehicles or consumer electronics. Cobalt production is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which accounted for 70.3% of global production in 2022. The production of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo is also associated with social and environmental issues, such as pollution, deforestation, loss of human life, and intensified warfare [1].

While cobalt is not essential for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) it is commonly used in the cathode and adds significant benefits such as tripling the battery’s life expectancy compared to other metals such as lithium iron phosphate and lithium manganese oxide (and hence not a straightforward sustainability trade-off). We continue to observe cobalt being used in the cathodes of LIBs in the latest Apple products such as:

 

Our forthcoming battery carbon model will track the use of cobalt in consumer electronics and automotive products, we will also track the use of recycled cobalt and its impact on battery performance in our battery characterization offering.

 

The Journey Towards a Fully Carbon Neutral Product Lineup

When the latest Apple Watch Series 9 was launched and touted to be carbon neutral it certainly turned heads, drawing criticism from some for the use of carbon credits to achieve this. The carbon footprint for the Apple Watch Series 9 prior to credits was an impressive 8.1 kg CO2e. Despite making significant strides with the latest iPad Pro model, it still has over 11x the carbon footprint of the Series 9 Watch, granted for a much larger product with more carbon intense ICs.

Apple’s 2030 full carbon neutrality pledge across life cycles of all products is still more ambitious than most., The focus of on-chip AI and integration of the M4 into a tablet product rather than laptop is also notable and reinforces the idea that iPads are PC replacements as well as entertainment devices, as was Steve Jobs’ original vision. From a sustainability perspective this can be looked at positively with laptop and desktop PCs having higher carbon footprints (202 kg CO2e for 2023 14-inch MacBook Pro), although the lifetime of an iPad is unlikely to be as long.

 

References

[1] Botelho Jr AB, Stopic S, Friedrich B, Tenório JAS, Espinosa DCR. 2021. Cobalt recovery from Li-ion battery recycling: a critical review. Metals 11(12): 1999. doi: 10.3390/met11121999

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