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The cost of our online habits

Our internet use has gone through the roof since the pandemic. But the worry over the negative environmental impact of emails might be overblown.

Over the last decades, our gadgets have become omnipresent in our lives, with video calls and conferencing taking the place of in-person meetings – a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic. This has largely been hailed as a win for the environment, as emissions-causing car and plane journeys can be reduced.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, the global internet traffic surged by more than 40% as a result of increased video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming and social networking, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Thanks to the vast servers needed to power the internet, and the energy it takes to run them, every activity you do online releases a few grammes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It may not be a huge amount individually but given that over half of the world’s population is now online, it adds up. 

According to some estimates, the internet now contributes to 3.7 per cent of global carbon emissions – roughly the same amount as the aviation industry. But how much does the digital carbon footprint of individual consumers contribute to climate change?

Several media outlets have quoted the figures made by researcher Mike Berners-Lee, the author of ‘How Bad are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything’, on the carbon cost of our online habits. A study by energy supplier OVO Energy, carried out by Berners-Lee, even urged people to send fewer ‘thank you’ -emails to cut carbon costs. But since then, the researcher has updated the original figures and stated that on a large scale, the impact of sending emails is not that alarming. That said, the time is right to do better to create a sustainable future by focusing for instance, on our electricity and power consumption.

Unintended consequences

Kaveh Madani, Head of the Nexus Research Programme at UNU—the United Nations University in Dresden, Germany – led a recent study on digital emissions. Madani and his colleagues found that the stay-at-home order at the start of the pandemic triggered an additional 42.6 million megawatt-hours of additional electricity to support data transmission and to power data centres.

Every innovation in the world has come with some unintended consequences that we normally only realise very late.

Kaveh Madani, Head of the Nexus Research Programme at the United Nations University in Dresden, Germany

Madani believes it’s essential for us to combat the emissions caused by this if we want to transition to a sustainable future. “Every innovation in the world has come with some unintended consequences that we normally only realise very late,” he says. “And by that time, it’s hard to get rid of them, because we’ve developed habits around them.”

It goes without saying that it’s unlikely we will completely ditch our digital habits now they are such a central part of our lives. However, there are some simple steps we can take to reduce unnecessary emissions. “Anything with video has a higher footprint,” explains Madani. “Also, if you’re streaming, and then you increase the quality of your streaming, then you’ll have a higher footprint.”

Simple steps

If you are happy to reduce your video quality then you should do so, and you should avoid using YouTube if you only want to listen to audio, Madani says. While face-to-face video calls are sometimes necessary, it’s worth thinking about whether everyone needs to have their camera switched on, and how long for – for example, would it work to only enable your camera at the start and end of meetings? Madani also recommends not storing unnecessary data on the cloud, not sending unnecessary group emails and replies to all, and unsubscribing from email lists that aren’t useful for you as other actions that can make a difference without causing you much inconvenience.

The first thing we usually recommend to digital business owners is that they move to a green web host.

Tim Frick, CEO of Mightybytes

As well as certain activities, individual apps, websites and search engines all have different carbon footprints. But this is where things get a little trickier. Online companies are not required to post their emissions anywhere and, according to Tim Frick, CEO of Mightybytes digital agency which has been working on this issue for over a decade now, although the understanding of this has improved, there still isn’t always an exact consensus.

“The first thing we usually recommend to digital business owners is that they move to a green web host,” he says. “There are also ways to improve the efficiency of websites. You don’t need to double-up on images, you don’t need to double up on scripts. It’s about making it as efficient and lean as possible.” Mightybytes also runs ecograder.com, an online tool where companies can check how green their website is.

Holding tech companies to account

Frick admits that, for a long time, it was difficult to draw much attention to the issue of digital emissions. “At times we thought, is this really a thing we need to be focusing on?” But he says the increase in internet usage during the pandemic, plus concerns over the emissions generated by Bitcoin mining, have generated more interest in this topic.

Madani believes that, ultimately, digital companies need to be held accountable, and should label their websites with their emissions the same way food products are labelled with calories.

“In an ideal world, every service you get would come with that information, so you'd be informed and able to change your behaviour and choose the cleaner service providers and apps,” he says. “But for now, we're at the stage where we're just highlighting the fact it's a problem, so that society becomes aware. Eventually, that may put pressure on policymakers, who can ultimately introduce regulation.”

Written by

Jessica Bateman