The internet allows us to send messages, share pictures, download music and stream videos at a touch of a button, but our online habits have a surprising impact on the environment.
It’s probable you’ve already replied to a couple of emails today, sent some chat messages and maybe performed a quick internet search.
As the day wears on you will doubtless spend even more time browsing online, uploading images, playing music and streaming video.
Each of these activities you perform online comes with a small cost – a few grams of carbon dioxide are emitted due to the energy needed to run your devices and power the wireless networks you access.
Less obvious, but perhaps even more energy intensive, are the data centres and vast servers needed to support the internet and store the content we access over it.
Although the energy needed for a single internet search or email is small, approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6% of the global population
now use the internet. Those scraps of energy, and the associated greenhouse gases emitted with each online activity, can add up.
In the US, data centres are responsible for 2% of the country’s electricity use, while globally they account for just under 200 terawatt Hours (TWh).
According to the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union, however, this figure has flatlined in recent years despite rising internet traffic and workloads.
This is largely because of improved energy efficiency and the move to centralise data centres into giant facilities.
But while many companies claim to power their data centre’s using renewable energy, in some parts of the world they are still largely powered from the burning of fossil fuels.
And it can be difficult for consumers to choose which data centres they want to use. Many of the major cloud providers, however
have pledged to cut their carbon emissions, so storing photos, documents and running services off their servers where possible is one approach to take.
As an individual, simply upgrading our equipment less often is one way of cutting the carbon footprint of our digital technology.
The greenhouse gases emitted while manufacturing and transporting these devices can make up a considerable portion of the lifetime emissions from a piece of electronics.
One study at the University of Edinburgh found that extending the time you use a single computer and monitors from four to six years could avoid the equivalent of 190kg of carbon emissions.
We can also alter the way we use our gadgets to cut our digital carbon footprints. One of the easiest ways is to switch they way we send messages.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the footprint of an email also varies dramatically, from 0.3g CO2e for a spam email to 4g (0.14oz) CO2e for a regular email and 50g (1.7oz) CO2e for one with a photo or hefty attachment, according to Mike Berners-Lee
a fellow at Lancaster University who researches carbon footprints. These figures, however, were crunched by Berners-Lee 10 years ago. Charlotte Freitag, a carbon footprint expert at Small World Consulting
the company founded by Berners-Lee, says the impact of emailing may have gone up. “We think the footprint per message might be higher today because of the bigger phones people are using,” she says.