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Opinion: The PS5 and Xbox Series X need to do better for the environment than their predecessors

Gaming has seen a surge this summer and, with the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X on the horizon, it seems that momentum could continue well into the end of 2020. While energy might be high among loyal console fans, it’s also high among, well, consoles.

The equivalent of 89kg of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere in the making of every PlayStation 4, according to the latest estimations – add to that the 82.2kg of carbon emission the console is estimated to produce during its six-year lifespan and that’s 173kg per console. According to the Xbox One X’s ‘Eco Profile’, one console will emit 745kg of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas in its lifecycle. That timeline includes the sourcing of raw materials, product assembly and five years of use for the most up-to-date edition of Microsoft’s flagship console.

To put that into context, an A-rated washing machine running 187 washes a year, will produce just 51kg of carbon dioxide – that’s 205kg of CO2 in the same five years as the Xbox One X (the building of the appliance not included). Times those two figures by the millions of units sold by Microsoft and Sony since their release and it becomes clear that console gaming has an environmental impact that goes beyond a slight bump in your energy bill.

While companies do appear to be cutting down on energy consumption across devices, there remains the issue of whether they are moving fast enough to offset the damage that continues to fall upon the environment. With little regulation to enforce this aspect of the console, it seems it is down to the companies themselves to police their own carbon footprints.

Unfortunately, what is best for the earth is not necessarily what makes for fast, graphics-intensive and innovative gaming.

Related: Xbox Series X: Everything we know about Microsoft’s next-gen console

In 2015, the European Commission announced that three of the most prominent players in console gaming – Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo – had entered into a voluntary agreement to produce more energy-efficient consoles. The companies promised to adhere to minimum energy efficiency levels when in “navigation mode” and “media playback mode” in future consoles, with the convenient caveat that these changes do not “limit…the industry’s ability to improve functionality and to innovate”.

Not only does the initiative gloss over perhaps the most obvious culprit for energy consumption in these popular consoles – gameplay – but the nature of the voluntary agreement means that the document is not legally binding nor is it subject to co-regulation.

According to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, a games console consumes more energy on average than a fridge. So, why is the kitchen appliance still subject to stricter energy labelling regulations than an energy-guzzling PS4?

Thankfully, Sony and Microsoft have already given us a promising peek into some sustainable improvements coming with the next generation of consoles.

Related: PS5: Everything we know about Sony’s upcoming console

Sony Interactive Entertainment president Jim Ryan took to the PlayStation Blog in September to announce that the company had joined the UN’s Playing for the Planet alliance. This partnership asked the games industry to take steps to combat climate change. Ryan revealed one change that Sony would be making in support of the cause.

“I am also very pleased to announce the next-generation PlayStation console will include the possibility to suspend gameplay with much lower power consumption than PS4 (which we estimate can be achieved at around 0.5 W)”, said Ryan.

“If just one million users enable this feature, it would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes”.

The PS4’s standby mode made booting up games much faster than previous consoles, but this convenience comes at a pretty hefty price. A 2014 report by the National Resources Defense Council estimates that the original PS4 requires 8.5 W to run on the standby, while the Xbox One uses almost twice that at 15.7. This change won’t come near to offsetting the 137 W the PS4 burned during gameplay, but dropping from 8.5 W to 0.5 is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for the PS5.

Microsoft also joined the Playing for the Planet alliance last year, pledging to certify 825,000 Xbox consoles as carbon neutral in a pilot programme and to reduce supply chain emissions by 30% by 2030.

Niko Partners Senior Analyst ZHugeEX estimates that Microsoft sold around 35 million Xbox One consoles between its release in 2013 and February 2018. If Xbox Series X sales reach a similar number, that’s less than 3% of units carbon neutral in the console’s five-year lifespan. Microsoft will need to progress past this pilot programme to make any kind of significant dent in the Xbox’s carbon footprint.

Related: PS5 vs Xbox Series X

Sony and Microsoft have a shared responsibility to reduce energy consumption in next-gen consoles. While it is evident that both companies are taking progressive steps to get there, neither is pushing hard enough for an electronic with a five-plus year lifespan. Hopefully, we’ll hear more about the subject closer to the Xbox Series X and PS5 launch dates at the end of the year.

We reached out to Microsoft and Sony for comment. A spokesperson for Microsoft responded:

“Sustainability is a priority of Microsoft and something that we are deeply committed to as a company. As we look ahead to the next generation of gaming, with Xbox Series X, we’re continuing to explore how we can reduce our environmental impact across the business, from conceptualization, design, production, and packaging, to what happens once our consoles are in the hands of consumers.

Examples of this include investing in areas like packaging, post-consumer resin, recyclability of our materials, and reducing the energy consumed while consoles are in either standby or media playback modes. We’ll have more to share on these efforts in the future. Please see our FY19 Devices Sustainability Report (available for download here) to learn more about the steps that Microsoft is taking and has taken to reduce the environmental impacts of its Devices, including our Xbox consoles”.

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