Zwoice . Nov 22, 2020

Black & white photo of a data server.

Digital pollution is the carbon footprint of the information communications and technology industry, or in other words, the internet. Currently, it is estimated to being responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions, polluting as much as air travel. To put this into perspective, if internet would be a country it would rank as the world's 6th largest polluter, after China, United States, India, Russia and Japan. 

Sadly, it is estimated that without dramatic increases in efficiency, by 2025 the carbon footprint of the internet would nearly triple and reach 5.5% of global carbon emissions, further increasing up to alarming 14% levels by 2040.

What causes such huge amounts of internet related pollution?

With each new aspect of our daily lives and business models that depend on an internet connection, we are creating, sharing, and accumulating tremendous amounts of data. As a result, the carbon emissions, produced from manufacturing, powering, and cooling computer devices and data centers are adding up at an incredibly fast pace. Spending a day in front of your computer causes the same amount of greenhouse gases as driving a car for 11 kilometers. And today, 3.9 billion people are estimated to be connected to the internet and the number is increasing at a rate of 230 million new users each year. 

It is fair to say that the internet, email and cloud-based services have cut down on tons of physical resources. However, it doesn't mean they aren't polluting in any way. On the contrary, all internet related activities are heavy consumers of energy, which makes them only as green as the source they are powered by. Unfortunately, for the most part, the use of green energy sources is not the case and the greening of the internet is therefore the next endeavor in our hyper-connected era.

Who are the biggest offenders?

Woman wearing a smartwatch typing on a laptop, with a smartphone next to her.

Email traffic

An average email travels 15,000 km between its origin and destination. The ordinary email usually contains relatively small amounts of data and emits about 4g of CO2. Each person in copy adds another 6g, and each 1MB attachment another 15g. If that attachment is then forwarded or filed, the footprint for that one email could be as high as 50g. And so the tiny data quickly adds up. The average email is known to be responsible for about 20g of CO2, which means it pollutes as much as an energy-saving light bulb switched on for three hours. Multiply that by 269 billion emails sent out each day, totaling 98 trillion emails per year, and the result is a release of 2 billion tons of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. This huge number represents more than 326 billion tons of oil and translates into the equivalent of CO2 emitted annually by 445 million cars. 

Looking at the facts from another angle, it would take 91 billion trees to neutralise the emails yearly carbon footprint, which is no less than 23 trees per internet user.

Web browsing

A web search accounts for 5-7g of CO2, depending on the energy efficiency of the device it is completed from. This is 3-4 times less than sending an email, but still, there are 3.3 billion searches performed each day. Viewing a web page generates about 1.2g of CO2 per minute, which goes up to about 1.8g when viewing a page with complex images, animations or videos. In fact, video streaming, with more than a billion hours of video content watched each day, is one of the largest drivers of consumer data needs. Web browsing is thus responsible for about 56 million tons worth of CO2 emissions per year. 

It would thus take 2.3 billion trees to neutralise its yearly carbon footprint or 0.6 trees per internet user.

Data storage

“For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there is a data center making this happen. Telecommunications networks and data centers consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centers continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see”. (Lotfi Belkhir) It is a form of dormant pollution, driven by storage and backup needs of old emails kept in mailboxes, vacation pictures stored in the cloud or forgotten customer accounts that have never been deleted, which make servers run uninterruptedly in data centers. These homes to thousands of servers vary greatly in size, with the larger cloud computing and colocation facilities capable of consuming as much power as a European city with 30,000 inhabitants. And this is just the beginning, as the volume of stored data doubles every two years and according to estimates, by 2025, data centers alone could produce 3.2% of global carbon emissions.

Electricity power plants.

Energy consumption

According to electricity and energy experts, the electricity consumption of our everyday electronic gadgets such as TVs, computers, smartphones and tablets will double by 2022 and triple by 2030. All our devices need to be powered and even in sleep mode, they continue to burn energy. Yes, this is a smaller part of their energy requirements, but why not helping our planet with a few energy saving tricks that will keep our wallets fuller and our devices to last longer.

Device manufacturing

Did you know that the average life span of a smartphone is 2 years and only 1% of them are recycled? This drives further production of new models and an extraordinary amount of, but not only, e-waste. Smartphones, among all devices, are estimated to become the most damaging to the environment, as they are made up of precious metals mined at a high environmental cost which significantly adds to the large energy requirements for the manufacturing of their parts. Alarming, because the most significant impact on the environment of our devices is due to the amount of energy used for their production. And above all because that energy, once again, rarely comes from renewable sources.

White windmills on top of a hill at sunset.

But what can I as an individual do about it?

You can make an impact anytime, anywhere you are. Here are a few tips and tricks for best practices that do not require any major efforts from our side and will instantly help remove the digital burden from our planet right away.

Emails and data storage:

  • E-clean your mailbox by deleting all emails you no longer need
  • Start with the heaviest ones and make sure you also empty the bin at the end of the process, so the clean-up actually takes effect
  • Get rid of spam, by installing an antispam program
  • Call instead of sending an email
  • Carefully choose your recipients to only those who really need to receive the information
  • Compress attachments to minimise their size
  • Avoid signature attachments
  • Carefully review your emails before sending out, to avoid sending a follow up with corrections
  • Unless absolutely necessary, limit replying to all
  • Remove all irrelevant content when forwarding an email
  • Switch to email and cloud services providers powered by 100% renewable energy

Web browsing:

  • Try other sources first, such as books, media or simply ask someone in person instead of typing a search
  • Favour websites and web services powered by renewable energy (ref. Greenpeace's "Clicking Green" report for scanning through the largest players)
  • Switch to green search engines (Ecosia, Lilo)
  • Before hitting enter, make sure your search is typed correctly in order to avoid retyping and launching a new search
  • Put the websites you use regularly into your favourites, in order to avoid going through a search engine

Energy consumption and device manufacturing:

  • Unplug chargers and devices as soon as the battery is fully charged
  • Unplug unused devices to save their battery and power
  • Avoid opening multiple navigating windows
  • Reduce the brightness of your screen to prolong battery life
  • Set your device to sleep mode after a few minutes, to make sure it runs efficiently while you are away
  • Shut down your computer at the end of the day
  • Set your smartphone to plane mode at night
  • Switch off your router at night
  • Use your smartphone rather than a laptop, it consumes far less energy
  • Take good care of your devices to make them last, save money and avoid electronic waste
  • Choose ecological accessories, made of recycled, recyclable or leftover materials
  • Extend your smatphone's life to four or more years

Happy e-cleaning! And rememeber that every little counts.

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