The 21st century has seen mankind cross the threshold into a more digital world. Laptops, tablets and smartphones have made likes, retweets and left- clicks feel like a function of our brains.
And in 2020, dependence on our digital devices has been almost impossible to avoid. But as we all boot up our electronic appendages during isolation, we should reflect on the physical impact of our virtual habits. As you stream your favourite songs, rewatch your favourite Friends episode, or send a little ‘thank you’ email, do you know how you are affecting the environment?
Emails and texts
You’ve probably received at least ten emails today already. What might surprise you is that each email carries an environmental burden. A spam
email can release 0.3g of carbon dioxide emissions; an email with an attachment can contribute 50g carbon dioxide. An average business user
generates 135kg carbon dioxide each year from their emails alone. That is the carbon equivalent of driving 200 miles. Cutting out unnecessary emails could reduce carbon emissions by over 16,000 tonnes each year.
So, those newsletters you signed up to five years ago? They may have saved you 15% at ASOS at some point, but now it’s time to unsubscribe.
Despite now seeming outdated, SMS texting is still the most carbon-efficient way of communicating digitally. A text generates 0.014g of carbon dioxide.
Messaging on a third-party app like Facebook or WhatsApp, though, is almost as harmful as an email. Now that is probably something you did not want to read. As the most popular communication apps now, the companies running them have a burden to carry.
You would be forgiven for thinking that shifting online would make us more environmentally friendly. Fewer physical letters, records, DVD players and plastic pens surely mean we can save more of Earth’s materials. And it’s true, our plastic use over the last few decades has decreased.
Unfortunately, plastic consumption is not our main concern; greenhouse gas emissions are far more damaging. Although the information we store has transcended from physical to digital, greenhouse gas emissions have dramatically increased. 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are produced through data storage. While this may not seem significant, it is the same as the global airline industry.
So, shifting online does not always bring the benefits you might think. If there’s a particular album you plan to play on repeat, buying a physical copy may
actually be greener. Streaming an album 27 times uses more energy than the manufacture of a physical CD. This is because streaming uses data stored on servers, which take a sizeable amount of energy to run.
Playing CDs and vinyl requires minimal energy. Whipping out the old record player may do more than aid your retro image; it may just save the planet.
Some companies, Spotify amongst them, have chosen to close their data centres in favour of using Google’s Cloud Platform. This is a step in the right direction towards greener data storage.
Across the globe, 4.1 billion people – more than half the world’s population – use the internet. All the energy from these individuals adds up. Internet activities account for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is expected to double by 2025. Internet browsers are somewhat of a disputed topic.
While Google estimate that each search on their engine generates 0.2g carbon dioxide, other, independent studies have estimated closer to 10g.
This is a huge discrepancy, especially when you consider there are greener options. Ecosia, founded in 2009, is fighting the good fight on the Internet space.
They pledge to plant a tree for every 45 searches on their platform. This will be of immense importance in offsetting our ever-rising carbon emissions.
If you isolate these examples, each seems fairly innocuous. Yet, it is a sign of the dangers of excess which could plague future generations. This is not a plea to boycott the internet and its plethora of offshoots: we’ve come too far for that. Yet, if we all make an effort to curb unnecessary usage, like not playing Youtube videos for hours as background music, we can lead ourselves towards a greener space, both physically and online.
Image: Javier Hirschfield via Getty Images.