How many emails have you sent today? How about WhatsApp messages? How many songs have you streamed? We’re guessing you’ve probably already done a fair amount, even if you’re reading this with your morning coffee. It may feel like all these actions are taking place in a technology bubble that doesn't have much impact on the environment, but each of those activities actually has a small cost. Today we’re discussing digital sustainability and how much of an impact it has on the environment.
What Is Digital Sustainability?
Digital sustainability is the same as many other types of sustainability discussions. It looks at how we can make our digital footprint as sustainable as possible, both on a worldwide scale and on an individual level.
If you use the internet, chances are you use a form of cloud computing. Think Google Drive, Dropbox, and Office 365. All of these products mean your photos, messages and videos are being stored on the cloud and not on your device itself.
This is generally more sustainable than data being stored on physical items owned by you - the cloud takes less manufacturing energy and is less wasteful than CDs for example. All of these cloud-based items are instead stored in massive data centers, which although take energy to keep cool, are relatively efficient for the huge amounts of data they store.
What's My Digital Carbon Footprint?
Choosing the correct data center is important if you’re a large company, but on an individual level, it probably doesn’t matter too much. The data each of our online movements use might seem incredibly small, but as we know, all those little things add up. So the question is, how much carbon does your data usage actually use every day?
Let’s start with emails. A spam email will use 0.3g of CO2e, a regular email will use 4g, and an email with a hefty attachment like a photo or presentation uses a much larger 50g! Sending a WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger message uses a similar amount of carbon as an email while sending a tweet uses roughly 0.2g of CO2e.
According to Google’s own figures, an average user of its services – someone who performs 25 searches each day, watches 60 minutes of YouTube, has a Gmail account, and accesses some of its other services – produces less than 8g (0.28oz) CO2e a day.
It’s pretty obvious from all of this that anything containing video uses more CO2e than something that’s just text - so you may be asking what about video calls now we’re all so used to Zoom working. One study from 2012 estimated that a five-hour meeting held over a video conferencing call between participants in different countries would produce between 4kg (8.8lbs) CO2e and 215kg (474lbs) CO2e. This may sound like a lot, but it’s important to remember that a lot of Zoom meetings replaced the need to meet in person, so are a lot better for the environment. The same study found that video conferencing produced just 7% of the emissions of meeting in person. Another study found that “the impact of a car ride exceeds the impact of a video conference at less than 20km”.
If you’re struggling to put any of this in perspective, all the numbers above are super small! For context, it takes around 71g of CO2e to make a standard cup of tea or coffee.
How To Be More Digitally Sustainable
So, we’ve looked at the numbers, and for most people, their daily data use really doesn’t produce that much CO2e, and most companies that you’ll use for cloud storage do seem committed to making their data centers sustainable. So does that leave us with the conclusion that you don’t need to clean up your act digitally?
Well, we always like to remember that every little difference does help. According to energy company OVO, by simply stopping unnecessary niceties such as “thank you” emails we could collectively save a lot of carbon emissions. If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent of taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.
There are also other advantages to cleaning up your act digitally. We’ve all heard the phrase tidy room tidy mind, and the same principle applies to your laptop and phone. It’s been proven that unnecessary clutter can be linked to depression, anxiety, and elevated stress levels, and seeing 16,000 unread emails is just another form of clutter in our lives.
Here are our top tips to cleaning up your act digitally, not only to make reductions to your environmental impact but to also keep your stress levels low and computer clutter-free:
- 📧 Delete those unread emails! If you haven’t needed them in years, it’s time for them to go
- ☁️ Use cloud-based solutions. They’re generally better for the environment and create less physical clutter for you than using CDs, memory sticks or external hard drives.
- 📰 Unsubscribe from unnecessary newsletters
- 🗂️ Take time to go through your files once a season. Delete any files and pictures you don’t need anymore, and organize the rest into structured folders off your home screen
- 🖥️ Close those browser tabs! Keeping unnecessary tabs and windows open, especially if they have video content on the page, will reduce data massively
The Same Old Story
As we often circle back to, the onus of choosing sustainable practices should be on the big companies, not the individuals who use less carbon digitally than making a cup of tea. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other data center companies, all need to be doing more to not only be carbon neutral but carbon negative and use their huge wealth to come up with practical climate solutions.
However, this doesn’t mean we all can’t do our bit individually. It’s worth keeping your data usage habits in mind, especially as there can be other mental health benefits to keeping a tidier digital workspace.