Unseen Impact: How your digital habits affect carbon emissions

In our fast-paced, interconnected world, digital technology has become an integral part of our daily lives. From streaming videos to sending emails, every click and swipe leaves a mark on the environment. It’s time to take a closer look at the carbon emissions tied to our everyday digital habits. 

While the digital revolution has undoubtedly brought convenience and efficiency, it also has a substantial carbon cost. Here’s a breakdown of how our digital activities contribute to carbon emissions:

1. Data Centres and Cloud Computing

Digital services like streaming, online storage, and cloud computing rely on massive data centres that consume immense amounts of energy. These facilities run 24/7 to keep our data accessible. In 2020, data centres alone were estimated to account for about 1% of global energy-related Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. 

2. Internet Usage

Streaming videos, browsing websites, and using social media all require data transmission, which in turn requires electricity to power the network infrastructure. Streaming an hour of high-definition video or videoconferencing can emit between 150 and 1000 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). What does this mean? 

According to an industry-backed study from climate group Carbon Trust, streaming a one-hour TV show, film or video program has around the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle for six minutes or popping four bags of popcorn in the microwave. Netflix also added that streaming one hour of a show or movie emitted less than 100 grams of CO2e. That hour also requires 2-12 litres of water and a land area about the size of an iPad Mini. 

However, using streaming to listen music undoubtedly makes the smallest impact in comparison to CDs (which emit 165 grams of CO2e) and vinyl records and cassette tapes (both of which emit well over 2 kilograms of CO2 per unit). One hour of streaming produces about 55 grams of CO2e.  

Source: MIT

3. Remote Working

3G network consumes more energy than 4G and WiFi uses the least. Searching doesn’t have a big impact on our carbon footprint, around 0.5g CO2e for one simple search on a smartphone (including the costs embodied in the smartphone, the electricity and Google’s contribution). 

According to Berners-Lee’s book, ‘How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything’, a normal email has a footprint equivalent to 0.3 g of CO2 emissions. This can rise to 50g, however, with the addition of a large attachment. This figure looks at everything from the power in data centres to the computers that send, filter and read the messages. Short unnecessary emails could contribute as much CO2 each year as 3,334 diesel cars.  

The carbon footprint of Zoom and / Teams calls is largely dependent on the device you are using, it could be from 10g CO2e per hour on an average laptop (without external monitor) to 50g CO2e per hour on a desktop computer with screen. You also need to remember the embodied emissions in the device you are using. As with emails, the bulk of emissions are embodied in the device itself and the actual additional emissions from the call are minimal. Of course, we cannot forget the big saving from video calls is the lack of commuting as one individual driving 5 miles could have a net 16kg of CO2e emissions (car dependent).

4. E-Waste

Our constant desire for the latest gadgets leads to the disposal of older electronics, contributing to electronic waste (e-waste). Properly recycling these devices is crucial to reduce their environmental impact. IT equipment not only generates emissions, but also has other impacts on the environment such as toxic waste if it isn’t disposed of properly. 

Reducing Your Digital Carbon Footprint 

Now that we’re aware of the carbon emissions associated with our digital habits, here are some steps we can take to minimise our impact:

1. Be smart about your digital communication

Reduce your email communication through avoiding short unnecessary emails as ‘Thank you’ and switch off your camera during virtual calls when it is reasonably practical (e.g. you and your colleague are both physically in one office).  

2. Stream Wisely

Use WiFi rather than a mobile network when you are at home. Opt for lower resolution when streaming videos, as higher resolutions require more data and energy. Reduce your consumption and try not to stream music for more than five hours at a time. Limit your TV streaming time, too, and be cognisant of what streaming for X amount of hours does to the planet. (If you want to calculate your impact, you can do so by multiplying the number of hours you typically stream by 100 grams of CO2e per hour. If you stream 10 hours a day, that’s 1,000 grams of CO2e per day.) Also, stream on a smaller device when you can.  A laptop or phone emits significantly less CO2e than streaming on a TV does. Download content when possible, to reduce streaming altogether.  

3. Use Energy-Efficient Devices

Choose devices with good energy efficiency ratings and turn them off when not in use (monitors too). Consider using a smart power strip to eliminate standby power. If you use a second screen to be able to work effectively, only turn on when you actually need it and not for the whole workday. 

4. Reduce E-Waste

Extend the life of your electronic devices through upgrades and repairs, buy second-hand and recycle old gadgets responsibly.

5. Reduce storage space needed

Just like decluttering your home, having a digital cleanup is an easy action that will make a difference to your carbon footprint. Deleting spam emails, which clogging up your inbox, would matter to reduce your carbon emissions.  

6. Support Green Hosting

If you run a website or online business, consider hosting your services with providers that use renewable energy sources for their data centres. 

Digital habits and carbon emissions: a summary 

Our digital habits have a significant carbon footprint, but by making conscious choices, we can reduce their impact on the environment. Remote working has a huge benefit as you avoid daily commute, but it is worthwhile to be aware of your daily emissions and reduce it with small actions like sending short messages through a direct messaging software (e.g. Microsoft Teams) instead of sending another email. While the environmental impact of streaming doesn’t seem like much—especially in comparison to other habits humans have—it’s also important to consider how much and how often we’re streaming. It’s time to prioritise sustainability in our online activities and work towards a greener digital future. 


Written By    Judit Pelikán

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