A net zero guide to digital carbon footprint | Help reduce CO2

Our digital carbon footprint is the amount of CO2 that is generated from sending emails, downloading files, storage in the Cloud, gaming, streaming and of course viewing. Unsurprisingly it adds up to a lot! Here's what we can do to reduce ours and support the South West's net zero journey.

What’s the real cost of digital transformation?

More than half of the world’s population is now online, with digitalisation now providing us with some answers on how we can tackle climate change and help to protect the environment. But although we can’t see or smell it, digital pollution is a very real problem.

Shocking fact: If digital pollution was a country, its carbon footprint would be the third largest energy consumer in the world.* And perhaps even more alarming is that, according to The Shift Project, over the course of a year 2% of greenhouse gas is produced by our internet usage, that’s the same amount as global air travel over the same period!


Emails and Google

An email’s footprint is caused by the electricity needed to power the equipment used at every stage of the process. Mike Berners-Lee’s brilliant book ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ explains the impact that emails have and compares our average email traffic to that of driving 10-128 miles in a small petrol car. That’s pretty eye-opening, don’t you think? Here’s a breakdown:

0.03g CO2e = spam email

0.2g CO2e = short email (phone to phone)

17g CO2e = long email, taking 10 minutes to write and 3 minutes to read (laptop to laptop)

26g CO2e = an email, taking 10 minutes to write, sent to 100 people, one of which reads it, the other 99 ignore it.

As you can see, spam emails aren’t the problem, this is because either we deal with them quickly, or are sorted by our filters. The real culprits are the genuine emails that take longer to manage and have the bigger carbon footprints as a result.

The message here is, be more mindful of the emails you send. Do you really need to copy the world and his wife in, or would the one key person do? This is an approach we all need to take.

Google searches, although only account for less than 0.0001% of humanity’s carbon footprint, are another area that we should all know more about. Mike Berners-Lee also breaks these down for us:

0.5g CO2e = one simple search

5.6g CO2e = 5 minutes web browsing from a smartphone

8.2g CO2e = 5 minutes web browsing from a laptop

A straightforward web search on your phone is about 3 seconds worth of a 5-tonne footprint, whereas a 5-minute browse on your laptop is roughly 50 seconds’ worth. This is according to Google’s estimate based on the energy usage from their side.

Agriculture and Industry benefitting

The truth is that digitalisation is also an extremely positive factor in agriculture and industry now too, by helping farmers to work more precisely, sustainably and efficiently. Decision-making and practices are being improved, for example, as a result of the data-driven insights. This is at the same time as improving environmental performance and making the job more appealing to the next generation. With the consumers’ growing need for transparency on how their food is produced, these technologies could also be very valuable.*


So, the question we need to ask is…

How do we balance the benefits of mitigating climate change with tech, vs tech adding to the problem?’       

Well, the digital activity that is using the most energy is music and video streaming. 80% of all data flows through the internet as moving images. These need vast amounts of data, and the higher the resolution, the more data is being sent and received. It’s worth noting that the most efficient form of transmission technology are fibre optic cables, which transmit the signals via light.

Another area that uses a huge amount of power is Cloud computing. This is where instead of keeping your data close by on a computer or smartphone, it is stored on servers which can be anywhere in the world and accessed by you at any time. Two examples of this service are to check your emails via gmail or back up your photos to the cloud.

According to the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index (2018), Cryptocurrencies like the Bitcoin are adding to the problem too. Approximately 22 megatons of carbon dioxide are produced each year by the entire Bitcoin system, which is the same as the CO2 footprint of cities like Las Vegas, Hamburg or Vienna!

This ultimately all leads us to the biggest problem of energy-guzzling data centres. Absolutely everything we do online travels through these centres and their servers, and when that data is processed, heat is produced as a waste product. Additional energy is then needed for ventilation and to cool the servers down. 25% of the total power consumption of a data centre is caused by mechanical cooling.

There are no official figures for data centres yet, and it’s not properly monitored that the centres report on their outputs, so currently it’s not possible to say how high the current energy requirements are of all data centres worldwide. Regulation is therefore vital to support the climate crisis.


How can we help minimise our impact?

An easy-sounding answer to this problem is to put all data centres in cooler countries so the outside air can be blown in. Lots are already based near the Arctic for this very reason.

Using the heat waste effectively is also being explored, with feeding it into buildings like swimming pools, laundries or greenhouses. There is already a swimming pool in Paris that is heated by the servers of the animation studio next door.

Some companies are looking into sourcing their own energy by using green electricity for their data centres, like wind and solar power.

What can we do to help?

  • Reduce the amount of emails you send. Emails produce a lot of CO2.
  • When sending internal emails, use tools like Slack, they use less energy.
  • Don’t copy in lots of people on emails if you don’t need to.
  • Avoid having to re-send emails, by checking it properly the first time.
  • Regularly empty your recycle bin and spam folder.
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted newsletters.
  • Don’t send large files on email, use WeTransfer, Google Drive or OneDrive instead.
  • Use eco-responsible search engines like Lilo or Ecosia.
  • Close any unused tabs.
  • When searching online, be precise. It saves energy.
  • Delete any YouTube videos and your old MySpace account.
  • Unplug your modem or router overnight.
  • Get rid of unused applications.
  • Use low resolution instead of HD (High Definition). It uses 4-10 times less energy.
  • Try to print in black and white, double-sided and two pages per sheet.
  • Lower your monitor brightness*
  • Don’t stream, download instead*

Digital pollution is an important issue and one that we all need to get involved in, both individually and on a corporate level.



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