The big problem with Meryl Streep’s big-budget climate change drama? It’s made by Apple
The Apple TV+ series Extrapolations is a difficult watch for a number of reasons. There’s the attempt to predict the end of the world in anthology format. The hurling of data at a stunned viewers face, with title sequences listing global temperature increase and population displacement. The absence of any believable or relatable characters. And the fact that it’s on Apple TV+.
Extrapolations creator Scott Z Burns has respectable form in the “we’re all going to die” genre – his 2011 screenplay Contagion became panic viewing at the start of the Covid pandemic thanks to its accuracy, the result of his detailed research with the World Health Organisation. For Extrapolations he’s taken current predictions on climate change and, um, extrapolated them to imagine what the earth will be like decades into the future. Although, as far as I can tell, there are no predictions suggesting that whales will end up speaking with Meryl Streep’s voice.
The script is data led, features Streep, Sienna Miller, Forest Whitaker, Marion Cotillard, Edward Norton and a host of other big-name stars in an unimpeachably worthy work of well-meaning celebrity cringe. It has characters saying things like “25 years ago, we thought crypto was going to be our saviour. Now it’s killing us with the carbon footprint.” And after hearing about an earthquake a normal everyday commuter says with their actual mouth the following words: “Sea-level change. More water, more weight on the tectonic plates.”
Apple plans to follow this up on April 22 with the Earth Day launch of Big Beasts, presented by the leonine Tom Hiddleston and covering – essentially – large animals. So Apple is on board with the green agenda and keen to help us realise we need to change our ways. But there's a problem with all this.
On September 7 2022, Apple flew journalists from around the world to Cupertino, California for the unveiling of the iPhone 14. This left some of the invited journalists unimpressed. “If Apple really cared about sustainability and the environment, they wouldn’t fly a bunch of people out to a virtual launch event, and the new iPhone 14 wouldn’t exist,” according to Sophia Whitham, a tech reviewer for XGA Developers.
The iPhone 14, according to Apple, creates 61kg of CO2 across the course of its life. The carbon accounting platform Greenly Resources ran its own analysis and said Apple was missing 80 per cent of the phone’s climate impact. For instance, Apple’s total front ends carbon creation in the manufacturing stage, with 70 per cent of its footprint coming from production. This, according to UK mobile recycling site Compare and Recycle, still means that – with 220 million iPhones made in 2022 – 17 megatonnes of CO2 are created making the phones. To offset these emissions 4,614 wind turbines need to run constantly for an entire year.
And the overall number also assumes that the only carbon created by people using the iPhone would be from charging the device. Greenly’s calculation took into account the use of mobile data and working on an average consumption of 45GB per month added an extra 60kg to the total.
“Apple is doing a much better job than most smartphone companies in disclosing its footprint,” Greenly’s analyst Ines Gendre wrote. “But if the most admired company in the world wants to set the example, it needs to go all the way and report its full indirect emissions.”
And then there’s Apple’s delight in outsourcing elements of its packing footprints to us. Before 2020, for instance, iPhones came with a charger. With the iPhone 12 that stopped. Apple argued that most iPhone owners had multiple chargers, and that this decision meant that "70 per cent more devices can fit on a shipping pallet on their way to users, allowing the company to stock shelves faster and reduce yearly carbon emissions by 2 million metric tons."
Which would have been true if Apple didn’t start shipping iPhones with a new Lightning to USB-C charging cable which wasn’t compatible with existing chargers – meaning we all had to go out and buy new chargers. The same is true of the 3.5mm headphone socket that Apple phased out just as it introduced the AirPod headphones.
In 2019 Vice analysed the AirPods, describing them as a “tragedy”. Containing tungsten, tin, tantalum, lithium, chlorine, sulphur and cobalt, the AirPod lithium battery starts losing its charge after 18 months. “They can’t be repaired because they're glued together. They can’t be thrown out or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separate the lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever,” Vice journalist Caroline Haskins wrote. And it takes 2.2 million litres of water to produce a ton of lithium.
And then there’s the repair problem. Until the end of 2022, Apple did not allow consumers to self-repair devices, or upgrade old batteries to increase the lifespan of phones and computers. In December 2022, the company introduced a self-repair policy that involves buying the parts you need from Apple – £282.22 for a new screen – and hiring the specialist equipment required. Hiring the kit costs £54.90 for seven days. But don’t try this at home without the two boxes of tools weighing over 35kg because iPhones don’t do screwdrivers. Instead, fixing an iPhone screen requires 16 specialist tools.
Apple states that the self-repair service is for customers “who are experienced with the complexities of repairing electronic devices”. It also recommends that “for the vast majority of customers who do not have experience repairing electronic devices, visiting a professional repair provider with certified technicians who use genuine Apple parts is the safest and most reliable way to get a repair.” Either way, fixing your screen will cost you around £300. My contract with my phone provider allows me a new phone every 18 months. You know what? Let’s blow another 70kg of carbon – and could you bike that phone over please?
Apple were comment, but at time of going to press had not a replied. We also contacted Which?, whose journalist Amy Axworthy tried Apple’s self-repair and concluded it “wasn’t worth the risk”.
A spokesperson pointed out that Apple phones tend to last longer than other brands, do well for security updates and the company does offer a trade-in scheme to help recycling. It also has Extrapolations and Big Beasts, which sternly warn us of the perils of climate change.
Extrapolations does look like a globe-trotting drama, although most filming took place on location or in studios in and around New York. All the same, according to the US Sustainable Production Alliance – which includes Disney, Fox, Netflix, Amazon and Sony but not Apple – one hour of scripted drama produces 77 tons of CO2, mainly through transport. Extrapolations, therefore, produced roughly 616 tons of CO2. To capture one ton of CO2 you’d need 50 trees growing for one year – to cancel out Extrapolations requires 10,000 trees.
On the other hand, hearing a whale speak like Meryl Streep is funny. So perhaps it all balances out?