Written by Terri Witherden
It’s not something we think about often, but there is a carbon cost to our screen time. From the physical manufacturing of the devices we browse on, to the energy cost of running them, to the mega warehouses of machines processing and storing the data that makes up the internet, going online may feel like another world - but it has a very real impact on this one.
Going digital is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint in some regards – choosing to rent a digital copy of a film rather than buying a physical package made from non-recyclable plastic for example, or choosing to edit documents online rather than print multiple copies destined for the bin. But did you know that it is estimated that our increased online activity accounts for 3.7% of greenhouse emissions?
This figure is predicted to double by 2025, despite data showing that the energy used by the data centres and servers that keep us online has flatlined over the past few years – even with more online traffic and devices connected. This can be attributed to improvements in energy efficiency and cloud providers waking up to their responsibilities and seeking alternative energy resources or investing in carbon off-setting. However, as the world streams more and uploads faster, there are a few actions we can take as individuals to keep our digital carbon emissions as low as possible.
Many of us are familiar with the workplace joke “the meeting that should have been an email”, but if you are able to have a physical workspace meeting, you can cut your carbon cost. An average email is estimated to contribute 4g (0.14oz) CO2e for a regular email, which jumps up considerably if there is a photo or large attachment involved. 4g doesn’t seem like a lot, but multiply it by the amount of emails sent worldwide every day and the story changes.
You can do your bit by making sure every email counts (maybe think twice about sending a single smiley as a thank you note) and unsubscribing from mailing lists that you delete often more than you read.
Fun fact: If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road [source]
The impact of video
As the recording tools available to us have become more advanced, video has become a huge trend online and shows no sign of slowing down (depending on your internet connection that is!). Video now makes up 80% of data transferred online and 60% of that is online videos stored remotely and streamed from sites like YouTube. [source]
The emissions from video streaming soon compound and, in 2018, 300 million tons of CO2 were emitted from video streaming alone. That’s the equivalent amount of a country the size of Spain – for all sectors. As social media sites like TikTok and Instagram encourage more of us to produce and upload videos, whilst Netflix and YouTube employ autoplay to keep us watching, it becomes harder and harder for us to switch off.
The solution? Download your content rather than streaming it. This way you’ll only be pulling the data from the servers once rather than repeatedly.
Green Website Hosting
If you’re a business or host a website or blog, you can make a difference to your carbon footprint based on where your website is hosted.
The data centres which store and host your webpage and its assets can often be powered by fossil fuels and require water and electricity to help keep them cool and functioning correctly. There is a growing awareness of the demand for more eco-friendly solutions however, with many green hosting web services becoming available at a competitive price.
The issue is these are not mainstream providers, so you’ll have to do a little research. The good news is that many of them are powered by renewable energy sources which are stored on grids, so they are as reliable as more traditional website hosts, but without the large carbon cost. Check out Make Hay based in London to get started.
We didn’t want to write this article to add yet another carbon worry to your list, but we did want to let you know where your carbon footprint might be surprising you. If you don’t know about it, you can’t change it after all!