The Hidden Carbon Footprint of the Internet
Sep 08 2021
We often think of our carbon footprint as a direct consequence of an action we do or a product we use. Whether that action is driving a car, brushing our teeth, or burning tonight’s dinner. Almost everything we do produces carbon, it’s a fact of life most people consider during these activities. However, there is one thing we have neglected in our ever-continuing mission to be more sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint: the internet.
You’re probably telling yourself, “I only subscribe to electronic newspapers and magazines, and I stopped sending snail mail years ago!” Unfortunately, these activities and products we’ve replaced with digital alternatives still have a carbon footprint, whether or not we realize it. Don’t worry, there’s also good news: you can reduce your carbon footprint from the internet, just as you would with recycling, riding your bike to work, or replacing light bulbs for energy-efficient ones.
What Makes a Digital Carbon Footprint?
The internet and all the digital products you love like Google, Netflix, and Instagram carry a carbon footprint. The servers and infrastructure that support everything we do on the internet emit greenhouses gases too. For instance, watching a video emits approximately 0.2 grams of CO2 every second, and sending an email emits 4 grams of CO2 (54 grams if you add an attachment). A lot has to happen to get that video stream to you or to deliver that email to its final destination—that requires energy, and where there’s energy there’s usually greenhouse gases.
Plus, there is the energy required to power and charge the devices we use to access the internet. Computers, smartphones, and screens all run on electricity, which is generated from a variety of carbon-emitting methods including coal, natural gas, and petroleum.
We often think of the internet in the intangible, a service that simply exists whether or not we are on it or using it. However, the internet accounts for almost 3% of global carbon emissions. To put that in perspective, the aviation industry accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions—yes, those giant steel birds that run on literal jet fuel produce less carbon dioxide than the internet. So why do we advocate to fly less, but no one tells you to put your smartphone down in order to save the planet?
What Can I Do to Help?
Start at home. Only charge your devices when they need it, don’t leave them to charge all day or overnight. This tip also means unplugging those chargers when they’re not in use and turning off empty power strips. Turning off devices, especially computers, when you won’t be using them for more than a couple hours will help cut down carbon as well.
Think Digitally. When it comes to emails, do everyone, and the Earth, a favor and stop “replying all”—it uses more energy to send out that blast, thus emitting more carbon. Clean out your inbox, and unsubscribe from all those newsletters you probably don’t even ready anyway. When you just need a quick search, use your smartphone or tablet instead of a desktop computer or laptop. We know it hurts, but step away from Netflix and Youtube when you can and pick up a (physical) book or newspaper. Reducing the amount you stream will significantly reduce your online carbon footprint.
In addition to all listed above, it is important to support companies that are working to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate their negative impact on the world. Many online-only brands could consider their carbon footprint less than that of their brick-and-mortar rivals. After all, they don’t have to pay to keep the lights on or keep a store stocked. While this may be true, their online presence still carries a carbon footprint. Online stores can do several things to reduce their carbon footprint via the internet.
- Compress and reduce the number of images on their websites
- Eliminate videos, or at least turn off auto-play
- Ask customers before you show them a high-res image
Another option for online stores is to look to reduce their carbon footprint in other areas of their supply chain. EcoCart is the ideal tool for this task, working to make every individual order carbon neutral. The carbon impact of each order is calculated at checkout and the amount required to offset the order’s carbon footprint goes to projects that work to actively reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.