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The ultimate guide to reducing your digital carbon footprint (and why you should care)

Photography By Ihthisham Mohamed, Dustin Giallanza, Hal Gatewood
Published 16.11.21

While most of us are hyper aware of the environmental impact of our physical lives, our digital ones tend to get considerably less thought.

You shoot off a message into the ether. Across the room, a friend’s pocket pings. They look at the meme you sent and laugh. What made that transaction possible isn’t given any further thought. In a few hours you’ll both have forgotten the exchange ever happened, but it will always be retrievable by simply scrolling back.

We interact with digital technology, the internet and the cloud all the time, storing photos, messages, emails and all the information we access on the web. Initially it appears to be an environmentalist’s dream: no paper piles, transport trucks and energy hungry warehouses. “The cloud” sounds ethereal, natural and clean. But the reality is most of us don’t even really know what or where it actually is. Let alone consider its energy consumption. 

So, a debrief: cloud computing is information stored on internet servers instead of on individual computer hard drives. This process frees up your device’s storage, while still granting you on-demand access to photos, emails, files and information. It’s a life-changing marvel, but sadly one that doesn’t quite live up to our fantasies of a techno-environmental utopia.

Despite being out of sight and out of mind, digital technologies and the cloud do take up space and energy. A lot of it. But most of us barely give a second thought to the huge environmental impact our humble phone could be having somewhere else in the world.

Eberhard Grossgasteiger

Where is the cloud?

Digital content might feel invisible, but it takes up very real space. Companies, like Facebook or Google, externally store users’ information to help them save room on their own devices. Doing this also allows you to access said data anywhere, anytime. That picture of you at the beach you posted on Facebook three years ago. It’s probably stored in Alexandria, Sydney.

The hidden threads of information being exchanged on the internet are stored on hard drives in data centres all around the world. These contain rows upon rows of circuit boards forming long windowless corridors in warehouses bigger than Boeing 747s. All that hardware requires constant cooling to avoid overheating, which is responsible for almost half the total energy consumption of these centres. Global data centres use up 1 per cent of global energy annually. The total carbon emissions produced by our devices, the internet and its accompanying infrastructure make up 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – equal to the entire aviation industry.

It’s alarming how uncloudlike the cloud really is. But don’t be alarmed, as here are five ways you can reduce internet pollution without chucking your device in the trash.

Streaming

Sixty per cent of the world’s internet traffic is streaming videos, producing 300 million tonnes of CO₂ annually. Videos on the cloud must be stored somewhere (if you guessed energy-intensive data storage centres, you’re correct), and accessing them from your device also causes emissions.

What you can do:

1. If you plan on watching something multiple times, download the video, thus accessing the data just once instead of repeatedly streaming it. That applies to music too. Store your favourite playlists on your device and you can enjoy your most-loved tunes with the added bonus of knowing you’re reducing your own carbon footprint.

2. Reduce the resolution of videos you’re watching on your phone. Sure, James Cameron didn’t create Avatar to be watched in low-res, but he also didn’t plan on people watching on their phones from bed at 10pm. Low-res will do – trust me.

3. Think about what you stream. Is it essential? Pornography accounts for a third of online video streaming traffic, generating as much CO₂ as Belgium each year. Maybe a little imagination could go a long way to saving the planet.

Social Media

It’s often the first thing you check in the morning, and the last thing you see each night. On average, we spend two hours on social media every day. While images and text aren’t as environmentally detrimental as videos, they still have a carbon footprint.

What you can do:

1. Stop the mindless scrolling and reduce time online. Subconsciously reaching for your phone when you’re bored, waiting in line for a coffee or queuing at a bus stop does come at a cost. Challenge yourself to stop the bottomless browse.

2. Block video autoplay. We’ve all been there, clicking on a link and watching a 40-second clip…only to find ourselves still glued to the phone hours later. With features like autoplay embedded into many services like YouTube and Facebook, this is an easy trap to fall into. Turning it off prevents unwanted videos from being downloaded unnecessarily. It might even save you some time (and celebrity knowledge you didn’t really need).

Charles Etoroma

Junior Teixeira

Emails

One hundred and fifty million emails are sent every minute, producing as much CO₂ as 200 car trips around the whole of Australia.

What you can do:

1. Change your email provider. The main source of carbon emissions from your emails is your provider storing your inbox in a data storage centre powered by dirty fossil fuel electricity. But there are renewable energy alternatives. For as little as 15 euro per year, providers such as Runbox will store your data in a hydropower centre.

2. Stop sending polite “thank you” emails. If every adult in Britain stopped sending courteous emails, it could cut 16,433 tonnes of carbon annually. Tell your colleagues you’re not trying to be rude; you’re just trying to save the planet. They’ll understand.

3. Regularly delete old emails from your inbox. Remember that email you flagged for follow-up from 2016? Yeah, we think you probably aren’t going to read that again. Deleting old emails reduces the amount of storage your inbox requires in the cloud.

4. Unsubscribe from email newsletters you won’t actually read. The average user receives 2,850 unwanted subscription emails per year, creating 28 kilograms of CO₂. Signing up in a moment of passion is fun, but wears off over time. Only give your email to newsletters you really care about and will read.

5. Reduce the size of emails by including links to documents or compressing email attachments and minimising recipients.

Browsing

Browsing the internet is so commonplace that “google” became a verb. It’s essential for winning debates with friends and tracing the latest fashion trends, and in 2021 it has become the primary way to safely peruse shops. But those searches build up; Google processes 63,000 searches per second. Each search emits an estimated 1.45 grams of CO₂.

What you can do:

1. Reduce open tabs. Each tab in your browser window is connected to the internet to load content every single time you open the browser. By closing unnecessary tabs, and – because you have great intentions to go back and read that article – creating a to-read list of hyperlinks in a note, you can reduce the information your device is accessing from the internet.

2. Change your search engine. Providers such as Ecosia plant trees with the profit from every 45 searches users perform. So far it’s planted 130 million trees.

Investing

Elon Musk and Tesla stopped accepting bitcoin earlier this year because of the “great cost to the environment”. Musk was worried about the very high carbon emissions created by bitcoin mining and transactions. Computers require huge amounts of energy to process the codes that keep digital currency secure. Estimates about the environmental impact of bitcoin range from 22 to 53 megatons of carbon dioxide per year. Yet, crypto is on the rise, collectively worth over US$2 trillion.

You can opt out of investing in crypto, or seek out currencies with security blockchains that require less energy. One alternative is SolarCoin, which incentivises and rewards users who generate solar power through a crypto-rewards system similar to a loyalty card.

Which cryptocurrency you choose also affects the footprint of any NFT (non-fungible token) investments. NFTs are recognition of ownership of some digital possession. A single NFT creation or transaction can have a carbon footprint of 48kg of CO₂.  If you want to invest in NFTs, reduce your carbon emissions by using blockchains with lower emissions, like Tezos or Polygon.

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