Reducing Your Digital Carbon Footprint!
Digital carbon footprint
Climate change and technology
Two things have drastically changed the world as we know it today – climate change and the digitalization of our world. I’m thankful to say that I can fill your speakers today because of that digital transformation! I’m able to share information about climate change and what we can do to come together to fight it and live more sustainably – through this podcast and social media. I can learn more by searching news articles and studies with a few clicks of my fingers on the keyboard. Heck – I love the digital space so much I even got a Master’s in Online Education. Our digital world has helped us organize, share, and connect more than we ever imagined and has truly revolutionized our society and everyday lives.
However, there is a side of our digital world that we typically ignore when we use technology and don’t really account for when developing it at such a fast rate. As of January 2021, 4.66 billion people worldwide use the internet, and 66% of the world’s population use a mobile phone. We rely on these devices to power our lives. You’ve probably sent a text to a loved one today, scrolled social media, checked the weather, streamed, or listened to your favorite song.
But we know these devices don’t just function on their own. There is a cost to our environment when we plug them in to get that tiny battery to read 100% and beyond – to the infrastructure that allows our devices to function.
There is a digital carbon footprint. One that is a little harder to notice than the trash that piles up in landfills or noticing the number of cars driving to work every day.
Experts predict that the IT industry’s greenhouse gas emissions will likely reach or exceed 14% of global emissions by 2040. Right now, they make up about 4% – the equivalent of the entire aviation industry’s impact.
understanding your impact
I will note that the point here is not to make you feel bad for using your phones or laptops – but to make you aware of the actions that impact our world so you can make informed decisions for yourself and your usage. And as you can imagine, these numbers don’t reflect every user exactly. We know that internet and technology use falls disproportionately across the globe, and each person uses their devices differently, creating a unique impact. But each person’s effect adds up, which is why I implore you to look at yours today.
two sides to our digital footprintSo two sides contribute to our digital carbon footprint. The first is the energy it takes to manufacture and ship our technology around the world. The second is the energy it takes to power and maintain our devices, servers, and data centers that are in place to support the internet and store the content we access over it. Most of which is done by fossil fuels and some by renewable energy.
Shipping and manufacturingReducing your impact on the first piece, shipping, and manufacturing, is easy. By taking care of your devices, they will last longer, and you don’t have to replace them or feel the need to buy the next latest and greatest piece of technology out there. And when you are upgrading to a new device, you can usually find someone who needs it by posting to social media or properly disposing of it by finding a certified E-waste recycler near you.
energy to power and maintainBut what about the second piece, the energy to power and maintain our digital world? Energy usage and emissions is hard to track and it grows more complex with constant technological advances, changing consumer habits, and unequal adoption across all regions.
Let’s start by taking a look at our inbox. The average spam email emits the equivalent of 0.3 g CO2, bumps up to around 4 g CO2e for a standard email, and can get up to the equivalent of 50 g CO2 for an email with an attachment! Now I am someone who hates having one email unread in my inbox, but now I have a reason to keep doing it! Even emails sitting unread in your inbox have a digital carbon footprint. They are housed on the cloud – which may evoke images of white fluffy clouds. But these kinds of clouds are filled with cords and connections that need a lot of electricity to power. And .3g might not seem like a lot – but imagine how that adds up with billions of emails sent every day – adding up to thousands of tons of c02 emissions per year.
One way to reduce your email impact is to empty your inbox regularly to reduce data storage. Good Planet calculates that if you could delete ten emails daily, that would cut about 39,000 metric tonnes of CO2e, which equals about 19000 tonnes of coal burned every day. You could also send links instead of attachments, unsubscribe from any spam or unwanted email chains, and be thoughtful in your responses to eliminate the use of unnecessary back and forth emails.
So what about text and phone calls? BBC reports that “Choosing to send an SMS text message is the perhaps the most environmentally-friendly alternative as a way of staying in touch because each text generates just 0.014g of CO2e. And the carbon footprint of making a one-minute mobile phone call is just a little higher than sending a text” If you decide to video conference, the impact is much higher. Although it is a significantly higher emitter of c02 if you are conferencing with people in multiple locations for a long time, it is typically still more efficient than driving to a business meeting or traveling to a conference by air. So there is a give and take.
Streaming and browsing
And we all search on the internet. Whether it is to lookup an actor in a movie we are watching, find out the latest news about what’s happening politically in the rest of the world, or find that funny cat video we want to show our friend, we typically search for something every day. Each web page we view is said to be about 1.76 grams of c02 emitted per page view. And each search we make takes multiple servers to get us the information we want in just a matter of milliseconds.
But there are two sides to every coin, and regular browsing is more sustainable than purchasing a newspaper or paperback book. BBC notes, you shouldn’t feel guilty about curling up with a good book, though, as “You could still read a lifetime of paperbacks – 2,300 to be precise – for the same carbon footprint as a flight from London to Hong Kong.”
Reducing your streaming footprint
The biggest energy suck comes from streaming. The Shift Project Reports that as of 2019, online video generated 60% of world data flows, which is over 300 million tons of CO2 per year. So we’re talking about Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, and more.
If you want to begin to reduce your impact when browsing or streaming, I have a few suggestions. You probably will expect me to say it, but the biggest thing you can do is reduce your streaming. If you are streaming just for fun, try watching in lower resolution, downloading, or waiting until you are on a wireless network instead of using the mobile network – which is more energy-intensive. You could also wait to stream your favorite shows with friends or family – reducing the number of streams that are happening and allowing for some bonding time! And absolutely make sure you don’t have on-demand shows or Youtube streaming in the background just for noise.
Reducing your browsing footprint
If you’re browsing, try to use sites hosted sustainably. For instance, Etsy is an excellent site to search for all of your needs (instead of Amazon) because they use 100% renewable electricity for the electricity used by the data centers that host Etsy.com, their app, and even the electricity that powers their employees in the office and at home.
Google is actually carbon neutral but aims to run on carbon-free energy, 24/7, at all of their data centers by 2030. And I switched my home browser to Ecosia about a month ago, a carbon-negative search engine where every search removes 1kg of CO2. They are powered by renewable energy, give back to the grid with their solar operations, and plant trees for every 45 searches made on their search engine.
If you have a website, you can test your impact by entering your site on websitecarbon.com.
Even the rise of online banking and money transactions comes at a cost. The mining of bitcoin, for example, requires solving complex mathematical equations, which currently requires vast amounts of computer processing power. The amount of electricity consumed by the Bitcoin network in a single year could satisfy the total electricity needs of the entire University of Cambridge for 747 years!
However, bitcoin is not accessible for most people, so I’ll save banking for another time – it is just something to be aware of for now.
something to grow onIf we are all making small changes, that change will add up. And small changes like cleaning up your inbox are achievable for everyone. But we know it doesn’t all come down to personal choice. As rapidly as we are developing new technology, we need to be giving equal effort to improve our devices’ energy efficiency and the infrastructure that supports them. For this week’s something to grow on, I want you to develop a plan for making your digital carbon footprint a little lighter. Thankfully, most devices have so much information on our usage – what apps use the most energy and which ones we often use. Maybe your first step is turning your phone on low power mode, so you don’t have to charge as often. Or perhaps you step it up and schedule downtime away from your screen or app time limits for streaming apps – both of which can be easily set on your phone, so you don’t forget. You can also employ some of the solutions I mentioned above, like responsibly browsing or watching the newest limited series with friends or family. For me, I switched my browser default to Ecosia, set time limits on my apps (I’m looking at you, TikTok), and actively unsubscribe from all of the junk emails that come my way instead of just deleting them. Remember, Trying to live more sustainably isn’t a one size fits all solution. What works for one person might not work for the next. Living sustainably is trying to understand how and why things are the way they are in this world—understanding your place or your role in it. Then, making a plan that works for you while respecting and protecting the people and world around you and implementing that plan for more sustainable life on this planet.
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