How to Reduce Your Internet Carbon Footprint

By Sheila Bayliss on behalf of SLH 

Many of us are taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint, perhaps by reassessing how we travel, or making eco-friendly choices when we shop. But what about our internet habits?

With buzzwords like ‘paperless’ and ‘the cloud’, it’s easy to think that our online activities are impact-less. But unfortunately this isn’t the case. When data is stored on the ‘cloud’ (whether that’s photos, videos or documents), the process requires the use of massive buildings called data storage centres. These centres contain thousands of servers, plus the equipment to keep them cool. You can see inside one of these buildings in this article, which explains that data storage centres already use more than the UK’s total electricity consumption.

When we access the stored material eg by streaming TV shows or music, it is sent to our device from those centres. Collectively, this process uses huge amounts of energy, much of it from fossil fuel sources, although a shift to greener energy sources has begun. The impact of our everyday online actions, from emailing to web searching, are clearly significant, as you can see in this infographic, from which the statistics in this post marked* are quoted. Some estimates put the carbon footprint of our internet use as equal to – or even greater than – that of air travel*. Given the popularity of digital communication and entertainment, this is likely to keep growing, even if the individual statistics are sometimes questioned.

So what can we do?

Thankfully there are a few choices we can make to reduce our carbon footprint when we’re online. Here are a few that you can try:

Web searches

Did you know that every time you do an internet search, it generates a carbon emission of up to 7 grams?* To offset this, you can use Ecosia as your default search engine: they use the profits that are generated from internet searches to plant trees.

Using the ‘favourite’ function to save the websites that you visit regularly also reduces the impact, rather than running a search each time. For things you look up frequently online, such as recipes or gardening advice, it may even make sense to go old-school and invest in a comprehensive reference book for your home library.

Social Media

Tech industry veteran Jaron Lanier has famously said that if everyone deleted their social media accounts, it would significantly reduce the energy consumption by data storage centres.

Maybe giving up all your accounts doesn’t feel do-able. But you could consider which social media platform you find most valuable, and stick with just that one. Limiting your use of photos will also reduce your impact, as they use more storage. Which is next on the list…

Storage

All the information we process and consume – whether that’s documents, photos or videos – creates a footprint, as mentioned above. To counter this, you can get into the habit of deleting things more often, eg emails you don’t need after you’ve read them, or the five photos you took before you got the shot you wanted.

Email

The average email has an estimated carbon footprint of 4 grams, and up to 50g for those with a large attachment*. When we copy lots of people on a email (or ‘reply-all’), we multiply the storage implications.

Being selective about when you use the ‘copy all’ function can reduce the carbon impact of your email habits. Also, the less people you copy, the fewer replies you will generate, which in turn reduces overall footprint further.

Streaming

The Shift Project estimate that watching this 2.5 minute video emits 8.7g of carbon. Some basic maths gives you an idea how much harm our binge-watching habits could be causing. To help you reduce your streaming impact, you no could try some of these ideas:

  • Rediscoverlive TV and radio
  • Choose audio-only media such as podcasts, instead of ‘listening’ to video content (as images use more storage)
  • Download anything you listen to multiple times, like music, rather than streaming each time (if the option is available)
  • Switch offthe ‘autoplay’ function on your TV streaming and online video services
  • Prioritise the content that has most value to you. As a family, we used a ‘coins in a jar’ experiment to monitor how many videos we each watched in a week. It was a great motivator to reduce our consumption to only the content that is most important to us.

Another approach that has helped our family to reduce our online impact in general is to ‘live offline’ a bit more, by getting outside as much as possible, and pulling out the books, boardgames and crafts more often. Occasionally, we even realise we’ve forgotten to turn the household WiFi on!

*Statistics quoted from the infographic at https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/