Firing off an email, replying to a text, liking an Instagram picture... these aren't actions we usually associate with environmental damage, but in actual fact, they each have a significant impact. So, what is a digital carbon footprint? And are our technological habits really making things worse for the planet? Well unfortunately, it looks that way.
When we think of helping the environment, turning off the light and unplugging our electrical outlets spring to mind long before the idea of logging out of Facebook — but it's also our increased use of digital technology, powered by the use of data centers, which may be contributing to global greenhouse emissions. And of course, using our smartphones, laptops and tablets more frequently means data centers are pushing out around two percent of global greenhouse emissions. (This is nearly the same rate as air travel, astonishingly enough.)
There's a perception that digital tools are "lighter" than items which leave a paper trail, but it's simply not true; although we may think of information clouds as being "invisible," uploading files to them requires there to be actual storage centers, which in turn require carbon to keep going. However, with many people in leadership permissions denying that climate change is a very real, very pressing issue, it seems we're going to have to take measures into our own hands to help reduce our own digital carbon footprints. (It doesn't bode well, for example, that under Trump's administration, the page about climate change has been completely removed from the White House website.)
So you know where to start, here's a breakdown of how our some of our most common online behaviors stack up. It might help you figure out where you can cut down; when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, every little bit helps — whether it's online or off.
Using A Computer
According to some estimates, streaming an album 27 times can use the same amount of energy as producing and shipping an actual CD. So if you're digitally conscious about your consumption of music... there's not actually much difference.
Reading The News Online
In 2012, the Guardian conducted a comprehensive study into the carbon footprint associated with producing their own content. They found that using a laptop to read their articles used up the same amount of carbon monoxide as five 11W bulbs.
Sending A Tweet
According to Tweetfarts, who help users calculate global digital footprints in terms of hashtags and tweets, "the energy it takes to send a tweet generates .02 grams of CO2.1. With 500 million tweets sent daily, a total of 10 metric tons of CO2 are emitted per day."
Streaming A Video
According to ITE Projects, watching streaming videos of cats has a cost: It uses 1 g of CO2 for every 10 minutes of viewing time.
Sending An Email
According to the Washington Post, Mike Berners-Lee’s 2010 book How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything details the CO2 emissions of emails. Apparently, the average spam email has a footprint equivalent to 0.3 grams of CO2 emissions, while a regular email stacks up a footprint of 4 g of CO2. An email with a bigger attachment can have a carbon footprint of 50g CO2e.