Eco Comment – Your Internet Carbon Footprint

31 January 2024

Last week’s Eco Comment prompted me to research further into how our lifestyle impacts or creates our carbon footprint. The keyword in this is ‘research’. I might have mentioned this before but I enjoy research. These days if we’re looking for information, most of us reach for the computer. If we do a search, there are pages of suggested trails that we can choose to go down. As we read the list of results we reject the ones that are not quite what we’re looking for and maybe open one that looks promising, but don’t necessarily read the whole thing. It’s so easy. But how much has that search cost?

Our lives these days run in tandem with computers of different sorts. For most people it’s their phone and/or their laptop. Connectability is key to the feeling that we can contact and be contacted by those we love and to the world about us. But it comes at a cost. The internet is a marvellous invention. It ‘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’. So says Sarah Griffiths in a BBC Smart Guide to Climate Change in March 2020.

A more recent article by physicist Robert Matthews for BBC Science Focus Magazine quotes that ‘Connecting together all the world’s smartphones, laptops, desktops and other gadgetry, the infrastructure of the internet uses a lot of energy, and that in turn gives it a hefty carbon footprint. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, the internet is responsible for roughly one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, or around two per cent of world emissions.’ Sadly without subscribing to the magazine my research stopped there, so back to Sarah.

She points out that yes, a single internet search or email is very small but that approximately 4.1 billion people or 53.6% of the global population use the internet. This figure has now risen to 5.3 billion people, equivalent to 66% of the global population and is predicted to be 6.54 billion in 2025. ( Internet User Statistics)

According to some estimates the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. Link to last week – this is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally BUT these are predicted to double by 2025! She goes on to suggest that if the 1.7 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions were divided up between all internet users, each of us would be responsible for 414kg of carbon dioxide a year. Emails from a typical business user over a year is equivalent to driving 200 miles in the family car. Fast forward from those rather shocking figures, she gives us a let out clause: we can do something about it.

We can switch the way we send messages.
A Spam email = 0.3g C02. A regular email = 4g C02. An email with a photo = 50g C02
Swap email attachments for links to documents and avoid sending to multiple recipients.

A really good way to save is unsubscribing from mailing lists we no longer read along with not sending out email addresses to new websites. (The average user receives 2,850 unwanted emails every year from subscriptions, which are responsible for 28.5kg C02e.)

She also suggests cutting back on sending unnecessary ‘thank you’ emails (which I’m not so sure about). But apparently if every adult in the UK sent one less ‘thank you’ email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent of taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road, according to OVO Energy.

It makes you think. It also makes me think that this is such a big subject, I’m going to continue it next week.

Susan Morgan
Eco Group

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