The Emissions of the Internet + 7 Tips to Reduce Your Digital Footprint

What’s common between the Internet and the airline industry? Unfortunately, it’s their greenhouse emissions. The carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions. That is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. These emissions are predicted to double by 2025.

How does the Internet generate greenhouse emissions?

One person spending time on ten social media platforms for five minutes every day results in 20 kg of CO2 emissions per year. That is the equivalent of driving a passenger car for 52.5 miles.

Massive data centers filled with servers processing vast online data demand immense energy and emit a significant amount of carbon. As Internet usage increases, so do data centers, worsened by energy-intensive computing systems.

Internet infrastructure, including cables and networks, emits carbon during manufacturing and maintenance. Devices like smartphones contribute to emissions through manufacturing, usage, and disposal. Streaming services increase the carbon footprint because they demand server and network resources. Emailing, video calls, and web browsing also contribute to Internet-related carbon emissions. It's vital to recognize the impact our internet habits have so we can do our part to mitigate our digital carbon footprint.

How can we make Internet consumption more sustainable?

As consumers, we can adopt several practices to make Internet consumption more sustainable (ranked from highest to lowest impact):

  1. Reduce email size and unsubscribe: Send smaller email attachments or replace them entirely with links to cloud-based files. Unsubscribe from unnecessary newsletters and delete emails you don’t need. Small steps like this can help reduce data storage and transmission requirements. Where a short email produces 0.3g CO₂, a long email with attachments can produce around 50g.
  2. Adjust streaming quality: Opt for lower resolution or standard definition when streaming videos to reduce data and energy consumption. Opting for standard definition while streaming content could reduce our monthly footprint from 53 kg to 2.5 kg CO₂. That’s equivalent to a 93-mile car trip from Baltimore, Maryland, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  3. Adjust power settings: Setting your computer to enter sleep mode can be effective. Laptops burn 15-60 Watts of energy while in use and only 2-5 Watts when in sleep mode.
  4. Download instead of stream: If songs were to be downloaded instead of streamed, there would be an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions after the first listen. Downloading content instead of streaming can be more energy-efficient. It requires pulling data from the server only once, reducing the demand on data centers and associated energy consumption.
  5. Switch to cloud-based software: Instead of storing files in your inbox or devices, store them in the cloud. Opt for cloud-based software like Google Sheets, Docs, or Slides instead of desktop-based software. Centralized servers are often more energy-efficient than distributed systems. So much so that cloud-based data storage can help companies cut CO2 emissions by over 50%.
  6. Lower monitor brightness: Dimming your monitor’s brightness from 100% to 70% can save up to 20% energy. It’s an easy way to reduce electricity consumption and practice sustainability.
  7. Unplug devices: Even when powered down, computers draw 0.5-2 Watts of energy when they’re plugged in. This emphasizes the importance of unplugging devices to minimize standby power consumption.

By adopting sustainable practices like these, we can help reduce the environmental footprint associated with Internet consumption. To explore more ways to become sustainable, download Commons and join our community of tens of thousands of people.

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