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How your internet habits are increasing your carbon footprint

BY READERS DIGEST

10th Jan 2023 Technology

How your internet habits are increasing your carbon footprint
The internet's carbon footprint is as bad as air travel—is it time for us to get more eco-conscious online? Cut your emissions with these digital sustainability tips
Because broadband is in effect invisible (bar the wifi router taking up space in your hallway), and nebulous terms like “cloud” and “network” define our experience online, it’s easy to assume that the internet is a clean, carbon-neutral entity with little to do with climate change
But appearances can be deceiving. While the internet’s carbon footprint is difficult to measure precisely, estimates place it at over two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions—the same as the aviation industry.

What causes the internet’s environmental impact?

Information may appear to whizz around the world unseen to the naked eye, but it actually passes through enormous data centres placed strategically about the globe, which store, organise and distribute everyone’s data
These data centres are extremely energy intensive—in the EU, they consume close to three per cent of the bloc’s total energy usage. 
They also require lots of water to prevent their computers from overheating. In the US, about a fifth of data centres draw water from already stressed water sources.
This summer, Thames Water pushed back on a proposed data centre in Slough, which had requested permission to use 25 litres of water a second to cool machines.
"The ICT industry could account for up to a fifth of the world’s energy consumption by 2025"
Companies like Google and Facebook are working to make their data centres more efficient, so that they use less energy. Yet the world’s energy requirements are going up all the time, as more and more of the global population comes online. 
One study recently predicted that the ICT industry could account for up to a fifth of the world’s energy consumption by 2025.
As with all sustainability measures, many of the improvements will need to come from the industry itself, but there are actions that we as individuals can take to reduce our digital carbon footprint.

How to be more sustainable online

Video streaming

Stream on smaller devices to reduce your emissions from watching video
Watching video has a relatively small carbon footprint compared with other digital activities like VR. Yet some experts have warned of a possible “rebound effect”, where the growth of streaming websites like Netflix outstrips the work being done to make them more efficient. 
The International Energy Association found that the carbon footprint of streaming increases when people watch video on larger devices, which are more energy intensive. 
How the device used for watching video is powered matters too. In countries where power grids have largely switched to renewable energy, video streaming emissions are naturally lower. 
To reduce your carbon footprint from streaming:
  • Stream video on smaller devices, like your phone or tablet
  • Move your home to a renewable energy supplier 
  • If you’re listening to music without watching the accompanying music video, switch from YouTube to another service like Spotify
  • Disable autoplay in your browser, so that videos embedded on pages cannot play automatically

Emails

Unsubscribe from marketing newsletters you don't read to cut your CO2 emissions
A typical spam email emits around 0.03g of CO2 emissions, though longer messages read on a laptop can go all the way up to 26g. Now multiply that by 333 billion—roughly the number of emails that get sent every day in 2022.
"If every British adult sent one less “thank you” email a day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year"
That puts all those work emails into perspective. One study found that if every British adult sent one less “thank you” email a day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year. 
To reduce your carbon footprint from emails:
  • Unsubscribe from marketing and other spam emails
  • Only subscribe to newsletters that you still regularly read
  • Send shorter emails to fewer recipients—go easy on the “Reply All” button unless everyone copied in genuinely needs to see your message

Cloud storage

The cloud may seem clean and insubstantial, but everything stored on it is actually powered by data centres, which rely on large amounts of electricity and water
We think of the “cloud” as some airy substance without any physical impact, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
All those photos that we keep (and most often forget about) in iCloud, the unread emails we neglect to delete and unused spreadsheets gathering dust on Google Drive are stored in data centres—and it’s all adding to the internet’s emissions. 
This is what the industry increasingly refers to as “dark data”. According to the World Economic Forum, the carbon footprint that companies produce each year by storing redundant dark data is equal to three million flights from London to New York.
We can all do our bit to reduce this number by keeping our data organised, both at home and at work.
To reduce your carbon footprint from cloud storage:
  • Have regular data audits where you delete old contact lists, spreadsheets and other documents that no longer have any use
  • Keep a clean inbox and delete emails that you no longer need
  • Reduce how many photos and videos you back up on your iCloud, and consider downloading old sentimental media to an external hard drive instead

Websites

Low Tech Magazine is a solar-powered website that goes offline when it runs out of charge
If you’re a business owner with your own website, you can find out how much CO2 it emits per page load with online tools like the Website Carbon Calculator
For example, this article produces 0.78g of carbon each time you load it. It would take five trees to absorb the CO2 that it emits in a year. 
A green web movement has gained traction these past few years, with organisations like Wholegrain Digital and Lowwwcarbon touting minimalist web design. 
"On a sunny day, Low Tech Magazine 'charges' its website using solar power"
The idea is to move away from the videos and special effects that are steadily increasing web page sizes (and the energy it takes to load them), while promoting more efficient coding practices that create visually interesting designs without adding too much weight.
Low Tech Magazine has also drawn attention to the energy-hungry servers that power our code-heavy sites by producing a solar-powered website. 
On a sunny day, Low Tech Magazine “charges” its website using solar power, which it then relies on at night and on cloudy days to stay live (a battery icon in the corner cleverly indicates how much power is left). When it runs out of charge, the whole website goes offline.
This is an extreme example of how we might reconsider our relationship with an “always on” internet. But it poses an interesting question: how much of our digital experience and impulse for instant gratification would we sacrifice for a low-impact web?
To reduce your carbon footprint from websites:
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