What is a Digital Carbon Footprint? 8 Ways to Green Your Online Activity

Digital advancements have lead to a lot of innovation and progress for the planet, but our online lives — from work to social media and streaming — come with a digital carbon footprint.

What is a digital carbon footprint?

Digital carbon footprints refer to the emissions created by our devices, the internet, and the systems that support them. Together, these emissions account for around 4% of our global carbon footprint – slightly more than the entire aviation industry

Most of the energy that’s creating our digital carbon footprint is used to do these three things: manufacture our devices, power our devices, power the internet.

1. Manufacturing our devices 

When you think of the internet’s energy use, you probably think of the electricity that powers your WiFi and personal devices. But the internet is a vast network of physical electronics like laptops, cell phones, data servers, routers, and other hardware. It takes a lot of energy and raw resources to produce these devices. 

According to the Shift Project, manufacturing accounts for about 45% of the total energy consumed by the electronics we use to access the internet.

2. Powering Our Devices

In 2021, the US powered around 50% of our electrical grid with fossil fuels which means that plugging in our personal devices produces greenhouse gas emissions. As a rule of thumb, the larger the device, the more energy it uses. According to Shift Project research, powering your TV accounts for 44% of its total lifetime energy consumption. For laptops, it’s 11% and for smartphones, it’s 6%.

3. Powering the internet

The internet requires physical servers in massive data centers all over the world which store and process our online activity. These data centers are connected by thousands of miles of undersea cables, switches, and routers. 

Data centers require massive amounts of energy to operate – between 10 to 50 times more than a typical commercial building. Unfortunately, much of that energy still comes from fossil fuels. Research indicates that data centers alone produce about 1% of global emissions. 

Building a greener tech industry

As our world moves increasingly online, we need more devices, servers, and data centers. On their current trajectory, digital technologies could produce 8% of global emissions by 2025 (doubling the current share). For context, that’s equal to the present global share of car emissions.  

As the digital transformation continues, it’s imperative that the companies building the internet commit to a zero-emission future. Apple, Microsoft, Meta (Facebook), Google, and Amazon have all pledged to reach net zero by 2040 or earlier to align with Paris Agreement targets. 

We need world governments to transition to a green energy grid and big tech to lead the charge toward a fossil fuel-free, efficient digital infrastructure. There are things you can do to drive the transition.

How to reduce your digital carbon footprint

According to the 2022 IPCC report, we could reduce global emissions 40-70% just by shifting our lifestyles. When we act together to reduce our digital carbon footprints, we can move the needle towards a greener future. 

1. Keep your devices longer, then recycle them

We’re groomed to crave the latest and greatest gadgets, but most of the emissions linked to our devices happen when they're manufactured. For instance, 80% of the lifetime emissions of an iPhone 13 Pro come from production.

Resisting the urge to upgrade can significantly reduce your digital carbon footprint because you get more out of the emissions it took to make your device.

When you no longer need a device, you may be able to trade it in with the company, or sell it on resell marketplaces. You can also recycle your device. Did you know that we only recycle about 20% of the 50 million tons of electronic waste we produce annually? To skip the landfill, just do a quick Google for e-waste recycling centers in your area.

2. Reduce your screen time

One easy way to reduce your digital carbon footprint is to spend less time online. When you cut back on streaming and scrolling, you cut your personal emissions, too. 

Schedule days to leave your phone at home and go offline. Ride your bike, museum hop, or socialize with friends. If you’re stuck indoors, read a good book or tackle that jigsaw puzzle you’ve been meaning to get around to. 

Digital detoxes aren’t just good for the environment, they can improve your quality of life. Research shows unplugging from your devices can enhance your relationships, reduce stress, improve productivity and focus, and boost your self-esteem. 

3. Switch to green electricity

We can’t control how tech companies power their data centers, but we can control what kind of energy we use at home. Over 50% of Americans can switch to green energy through their providers, which can even save you money on your electrical bill. This article unpacks the many ways to switch your utilities to clean energy. 

4. Get smart about streaming

Video streaming accounts for about 60% of internet activity. Unfortunately, all those Netflix binges and YouTube views demand huge amounts of energy. Research indicates media streaming is behind roughly 1% of global emissions. 

But don't worry, you don’t have to quit watching your favorite shows. Just keep these tips in mind: 

  • Binge together: If your friends live nearby, host a weekly viewing party instead of live-texting new episodes. If you watch the same series as your roommates, stream together instead of solo.  
  • Reduce resolution: High-definition viewing demands a lot of data. Research indicates you cut emissions by 86% when you Netflix and chill in standard def. 
  • Disable auto-play: Autoplay is designed to maximize the amount of content (and, inadvertently, energy) we consume. Turn it off to stay mindful of your screen time and avoid streaming to an empty room.
  • Download your favorites: If you love re-watching certain videos, save them to your device. Downloading uses more energy than streaming once, though, so it’s only worth it for content you watch regularly.  

5. Optimize your video calls

One in four Americans worked from home last year, which translates to a lot of Zoom calls. Studies show turning off your webcam can reduce emissions by a whopping 96%, so stick to audio-only when you can. If you need to use your camera, avoid backgrounds or blur features. Computers use up to 18% more electricity on video calls when they need to process a greenscreen effect.

6. Reduce electricity use

In an ideal world, we could all charge our devices with renewable energy, but most power grids still rely on fossil fuels. Taking steps to use less electricity can reduce your digital carbon footprint and your utilities bill.

  • Dim your display: Reducing your screen brightness by 30% can save nearly one-fifth of the energy used by a monitor.
  • Switch to grayscale or dark mode: If you have a newer phone, setting it to “dark mode” can extend battery life substantially. If you want to reduce screen time, some design experts say grayscale mode can make scrolling less addictive
  • Power down: Devices still use electricity in standby, so power down when you’re finished surfing instead of using sleep mode. 
  • Shut down vampire power: Chargers pull small amounts of energy even when your device is off. Using a power strip has the same effect as unplugging each socket from the wall. 

7. Audit your email use

Globally, we send over 300 billion emails daily, and those energy demand adds up. Here’s how to keep the planet in mind when you hit send. 

  • Avoid attachments: Attachments increase the amount of energy it takes to load an email. When you can, link to the cloud instead. 
  • CC with care: An email generates emissions for every inbox it travels to, so don’t “reply all” to the whole office if you don’t have to. 
  • Purge your subscriptions: We receive an estimated 2,850 unwanted emails every year. Delete and unsubscribe from emails that you don't need.

8. Use your phone strategically

Even though our smartphones collect most of their carbon footprints in production, you can limit the lifetime emissions with simple your usage habits can be part of a climate action lifestyle.

  • Wait for WiFi: It takes about twice as much energy to go online using mobile data than it does to connect to WiFi. Try to wait for WiFi, especially for high-energy things like streaming video.
  • Delete unused apps: Most apps track your data in one way or another. It takes energy to collect and store that information, so delete apps you don’t use. 
  • Prioritize mobile devices: These days, our phones can do almost everything computers do. Since smaller screens use less energy than larger ones, use your phone for as much online activity as possible. 

We’re powerful when we act together

A lot needs to change if we want to achieve a zero-emissions future, but starting small is big when we all pitch in. Commons provides tools to make the most impactful changes in your lifestyle – whether that’s taking control of your carbon footprint, offsetting the emissions you can’t erase yet, or joining an energy-efficiency challenge with friends. 

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