Back to overview

The internet’s invisible footprint

05 April 2021

Did you know that the internet emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as the entire airline industry? Let’s explain you how that happens and what you can do about it.

About 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, or 724 million metric tons of CO₂e (carbon dioxide equivalent), are emitted by the internet every year (this percentage has been debated a lot and varies between 1.8% and 4% depending on the source). To put this into perspective, that’s almost 8 times as much as Belgium emits every year. If the internet was a country, it would be the 7th largest emitter worldwide. Right behind China, the US, India, Russia, Japan, and Germany. (Source)

But how? Isn’t the internet this magical, invisible thing that just exists? I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s anything but invisible. Just take a look inside a basement of any big digital company like Google or Facebook. You’ll find rows and rows of huge computers running 24/7. They’re so big employees use scooters to get around.

A data center, photo by imgix on Unsplash

These data centers don’t only use an immense amount of energy (mostly generated in coal-burning plants) to keep running, they also need to be cooled all day and night. We haven’t even started to consider the huge amount of materials that are used to build these supercomputers. Or the transport to get them to the data centers.

Isn’t it crazy that the internet is polluting the environment, and nobody talks about it? While a lot of people think twice about flying somewhere, I don’t think anyone has ever had second thoughts about sending another email, listening to a new song on Spotify, or binging another series on Netflix. But every time you do this, you put a data center to work, and your device uses energy.

So how can we reduce our digital carbon footprint? And what can companies do? Let’s start by looking at some numbers.

Don't say thank you

The carbon footprint of an email varies depending on what kind of email it is. It can range from 0.03g CO₂e for a spam mail to 0.3g for a short email and 17g for a long email (recent numbers from the book ‘How bad are bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee). You are probably thinking “that’s not a lot,” but if you knew that in 2020 the 3.9 billion email users exchanged about 306.4 billion emails every day (source), you might want to think again.

Let’s do some quick math. We know that about half the emails sent are spam, and if we can assume that long and short emails are equally distributed, each of us emits 491g of CO₂e every day. This adds up to 179 kg every year and equals driving all the way from Brussels to Oslo with a regular car. I’d prefer that trip over sending all those emails, don’t you?

In the UK it’s estimated that 64 million ‘thank you’ emails are sent every day . Sure, it’s nice to say thank you, but this adds up to 7,008 metric tons (!) of CO₂e every year in the UK alone.

Let me Google that

We do it so much it became a verb. But even ‘googling’ something has a carbon footprint. A single search emits 0.5g of CO₂e (source). But do you have any idea how many things you search for on a daily basis? I have to admit I don’t.

What we do know is that every day there are more than 3.5 billion Google search inquiries worldwide which adds up to 1,750 metric tons of CO₂e every year. To help you picture, this weighs more than 1,000 regular cars.

Are you still watching? Yes Netflix, I am...

I can bet this has happened to you too. The consumption of streaming media is growing rapidly. Netflix subscriptions keep growing and new streaming services keep popping up everywhere. But how dirty is your binge watching habit?

According to the International Energy Agency, one hour of watching Netflix emits 36g of CO₂e. So if you watched all 3 seasons of Stranger Things (about 22 hours) you emitted 792 grams of CO₂e. Not too bad! But we all know it doesn’t stop at one show …

This number can also vary heavily depending on the type of device you’re watching on. As you can imagine a big flatscreen television uses way more energy than a small laptop screen.

The quality of the video also has an impact on the carbon emissions. The higher the quality, the more energy is used, the higher the carbon emissions are. In your Netflix account you can choose the quality you want, and to be honest we don’t see the difference when watching in lower quality. Nice addition to saving carbon is also saving some money on your internet bill because you use less gigabytes.

Curious to know your exact emissions? In this article you can find a calculator.

So what can you do as a consumer?

1/ Take a look at your email habits

  • Unsubscribe from newsletters you never read.
    You can also turn off the email notifications of your social media accounts to limit the amount of useless emails in your inbox. You save 0.3g of CO₂e for every newsletter you don’t receive.
  • Delete email addresses you don’t use anymore.
    The emails this email address receives are never read but still emit CO₂e. The storage of these useless emails also take up space in some data center which adds to your digital carbon footprint.
  • Put less people in CC or BCC.
    Does your colleague really need to read that email or not? Save 0.3g to 17g of CO₂e for every person you don’t put in CC and limit the frustration amongst your colleagues because of useless email traffic.
  • Use small email attachments or links instead of big files.
    You can go from 17g of CO₂e for an email with attachments to 0.3g for an email with a simple link. Wetransfer (also a B Corp) is a really good tool to create a link with attachments.
  • Clean out your inbox and cloud storage.
    Try to back up only what’s essential because everything you save takes up space in a data center somewhere.
  • Avoid sending useless messages.
    When you need to say something to a coworker it’s more eco-friendly (and just friendly as well) to walk over to their desk. Also avoid having to send “sorry I forgot the attachment” emails.

2/ Use your browser better

  • Use a search engine that helps the environment.
    Like Ecosia or Gexsi. Gexsi is a certified B-corp search engine that uses its profits to support 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Ecosia on the other hand invests 80% of their profit into several projects that plant trees. With about 45 searches they can plant a tree. (They also keep track of how many trees they can plant with your own searches, very rewarding!).
  • Use an ad-blocker to limit the amount of ads you see.
    It makes for a calmer online experience but also limits your carbon footprint by not showing often flashy and colourful ads and pop-ups that use a lot of bandwidth and energy.
  • Use bookmarks for websites you visit a lot.
    A bookmark goes directly to the desired website instead of a search result page. This is more efficient and saves not only carbon but also some time.
  • Close tabs you’re not using.
  • Listen to music without video.
    If you’re listening to music, do so from a program that only plays music and no video. Yes, having Youtube on in another tab is wasteful.

3/ Your devices

  • Reduce the brightness of your monitor.
    According to a Harvard study, reducing your monitor brightness from 100% to 70% can save up to 20% of the energy the monitor uses. Most people don’t even notice the difference.
  • Think about your electronics.
    Your devices also add to your carbon footprint. You can buy ethical electronics like Fairphone or Shiftphone, or even better don’t buy anything new at all. Secondhand and refurbished electronics are a great (and cost-saving) alternative to buying new devices. Also taking good care of your devices so they last longer is a great practice.

4/ Last but not least

The biggest (but not the hardest) step is to switch to green energy. This can eliminate a lot of the carbon emissions on your end. On the website of mijngroenestroom.be (Belgium only) you can find a ranking of energy suppliers who offer green energy. You might think you already have green energy but it’s not because your contract says you do that your supplier doesn’t invest in grey or nuclear energy. This list takes this all into account.

What can you do as a business?

Companies can reduce their digital carbon footprint significantly by changing a few things around:

Start a conversation about sustainability and the carbon footprint of your company with your team. You can help your employees to reduce their personal digital carbon footprint by handing them the tips above. You can also try to change the email culture by setting some guidelines or using an internal messaging system like Slack.

Switch to green energy. As mentioned in the tips above this can eliminate a lot of the carbon emissions on your end. Take a look on the website of mijngroenestroom.be (Belgium only) to find a real green energy supplier.

You can also make your website more eco-friendly. The average website produces 1.76 grams of CO₂e per page view. For a website with 10,000 monthly page views, that’s 211 kg CO₂e per year. You could have a nice teambuilding on location and emit way less than this. On websitecarbon.com you can assess your website for free and get some pointers on how to improve your score.

A great example of an eco-friendly website is the low impact website of Organic Basics. They use drawings instead of pictures and the visitors can determine when they want to see the real image (and emit CO₂e).

By reading this blogpost, you emitted an estimated 1.36 grams of CO₂e.

Interesting resources

  • Calculate your personal CO₂ emission on clevercarbon.io and get some tips to reduce it.
  • Read this article for a designer’s guide to digital sustainability.
  • Calculate the carbon footprint of your website on websitecarbon.com and get some tips to reduce it.
  • Discover which apps are powered by green energy on clickclean.org.

Need help with your sustainability strategy? Feel free to schedule a meeting with our founder to discuss a collaboration.

Author
Janao Denys

Cases

Case

A visual identity and website for the most ambitious blueprint for circular fashion

    Services:
  • Branding
  • Digital Product Design
    Topics:
  • Sustainable fashion
  • Circularity
View case study
Case

The UX partner of Fashion for Good

    Services:
  • Digital Product Design
    Topics:
  • Sustainable fashion
View case study

Read more

Blog

How to make your company thrive during a recession?

    Tags:
  • Social Entrepreneurship
  • Strategy

The coronavirus is sadly destined to kill a lot of people and – indirectly – companies all over the world. But how can you make your company thrive during a downturn?

Continue reading
Blog

Why and how you should design for forgiveness

    Tags:
  • Digital Product Design

Designers have to design products in such a way that the user can’t make mistakes. Or if something does go wrong, that the negative effect of the error is minimized.

Continue reading

How can we help you?

Curious to learn how we can help you reach your goals faster? Feel free to schedule an introductory call with our founder Michael.

Back to overview