• Tracy Harfouche

Our digital carbon footprint and ways to improve it

From the manufacturing process of devices to the huge data storage in servers and our daily digital habits, our online life comes with a cost to the planet. Perhaps it is because the impacts are invisible to our eyes that we overlook them, when in fact all these devices, networks, streaming services, and data centres are originally sourced from natural resources.

We use electrical energy generated by fossil fuels that emit huge amounts of CO2 on a daily basis to send an email, run a device, use the internet, and store data in servers that are placed in big data centres. Despite the uncountable advantages of digitalisation, it is crucial to understand its impact on the planet and to consider solutions. The Covid-19 crisis has also escalated the pace of the world’s digital transformation. In 2020, while we were in quarantine, the internet traffic globally increased by 40%.

Now let’s discuss some numbers. According to Statista, there are 5 billion internet users who make up 63% of the global population and 4.65 billion of them are social media users. Furthermore, it is stated in the 2021 UNEP report that a single search query emits about 1.45 grams of CO2. Now imagine these 1,45 grams multiplied by the 5,700,000 Google searches conducted per minute by the billions of users who surf the web every day. The report also indicates that the internet uses 7% of global electricity and is responsible for 3.8% of greenhouse gas emissions.

What is the carbon footprint of emails?

Switching from paper to electronic mail accelerated our communication and reduced our paper use but turned out to also leave a carbon footprint. Scientific sources show that a spam email emits 0.4 grams of CO2, and a regular text-based email emits, on average, 4 grams while the impact of emails with attachments rises to about 50 grams, which is almost equivalent to 7 coins of 1 euro.

How much time do we spend online?

Now here is a glimpse of the time we spend online: a survey conducted in 2021 by Statista shows that the average daily time spent on the internet in Belgium is 5 hours and 45 minutes per day while users in the Philippines spend more than 10 hours and 23 minutes online daily.

It is easy to underestimate the number of carbon emissions but given the huge number of users and the huge amount of time spent online, these figures flag a real threat that needs to be addressed.

Some concrete actions to do:

Now that we know the above facts, what to do to decrease our impact? We collected 8 concrete actions you can consider implementing in your daily life to minimise the damage.

  1. Do not throw away your phone, laptop, or any electronic device only because it is old. In the EU alone, 160 thousand laptops are disposed of every day for becoming “old”, while most of these devices can be refurbished and reused. By doing this, we reduce e-waste, energy consumption, and excessive use of materials for production. There are many companies that are willing to buy your old electronics for good prices.

  2. Delete old files, spam, and unimportant emails. Make sure to unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t read and deactivate your old accounts. Get rid of anything you no longer need. As previously mentioned, data is stored in servers. By deleting unused data, you make those servers consume less energy. A study by Orange estimates that if everyone in France deleted 50 old emails, it would be equivalent to turning off 2.7 billion light bulbs for 1 hour. Another calculation made by OVO Energy for the UK shows that if every email user in the country does not send one unnecessary email per day, like a thank you email, that would “reduce carbon emissions by 16,433 tonnes - equivalent to a staggering 81,152 flights from London Heathrow to Madrid”. If you don’t have the time to constantly clean your inbox and unsubscribe from newsletters you have forgotten, there are now apps to do this for you automatically.

  3. Avoid adding attachments to your emails. It’s not only more sustainable but also more secure because attachments can contain viruses. If the option is available, link the document you want to send instead. Also, avoid sending “reply all” emails if not really everyone needs to receive the message.

  4. Use your Wi-Fi instead of cellular data whenever possible, as the mobile network consumes much more energy than the cabled internet. Switch off your cellular data whenever you have access to Wi-Fi as well.

  5. Reduce the time you spend watching streaming videos. Videos streamed online on YouTube and Netflix consume a lot of data and are considered the most polluting in the digital world. Whenever you want to watch your favourite show, make sure you stream it at a lower resolution. It won’t really make a huge difference to you, but a big difference to the environment.

  6. Unplug your devices when their batteries are full. Keeping your appliances plugged for a long time, even when they are full, damages their batteries and consumes unnecessary energy. In other words, there are literally zero benefits for you or the planet from keeping them plugged for too long.

  7. Bookmark websites you frequently visit instead of searching for them every single time and avoid unnecessary search queries. You can also refer to green search engines like Ecosia to contribute to planting trees with every search. On another note, Brave is a browser that blocks trackers, and ads, and saves some bandwidth. Combining the Ecosia search engine with the Brave browser would be a very efficient way to reduce emissions.

  8. Store your data on green clouds. Green cloud providers refer to companies that are committed to powering their clouds with renewable energy. It is a great solution for companies to save energy and protect their data.

All sectors and users must commit to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. To limit the online damage, companies can contribute in different ways from reducing streaming to storing data on green clouds, investing in renewable energy and R&D, and developing future-proof technologies. The slightest efforts, when multiplied, will have a snowball effect, and spur sustainable behaviours.

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