How to Reduce Your Digital Carbon Footprint
“Carbon footprint” is a fraught term that puts undue blame on individuals instead of the governments and corporations primarily responsible for our current ecological predicament. Nevertheless, individuals can and should reduce their personal energy usage—if only to rob the coffers of the fossil fuel corporations that depend on our generous contributions to sustain their ongoing environmental destruction and climate disinformation.
One way to do so is by cleaning up your digital life. Files are not disembodied spirits sitting in the atmosphere, passively waiting for us to call them into action. Nor are they languidly flowing rivers of video to view on demand. Rather, our digital detritus is clogging global data centres and data transmission networks—massive bays of supercomputers that collectively use 3 per cent of global electricity and produce 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
As internet use grows and energy consumption balloons, small changes in our digital habits could in aggregate result in a seismic reduction in global carbon output. The following are easy, actionable tips to reduce your digital carbon footprint and lower your energy bill along the way.
Clean Out Your Inbox
Each spam email sitting in your inbox is estimated to represent roughly 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent. Text-based emails add four grams of CO2e, and large attachments can contribute another 50 CO2e. While email represents only 1.7 per cent of the energy required to deliver a paper letter, the carbon still adds up to about 136 kilos of CO2e per person per year. That’s equivalent to driving 322 kilometres in a gasoline-powered car.
Reduce digital clutter by deleting unnecessary emails and unsubscribing from all but the most important senders. A 2019 study from British energy company OVO found Brits send over 64 million superfluous emails every day. If adults in the U.K. sent one fewer email a day, it would save over 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year—equivalent to taking 33,343 diesel cars off the road.
Reduce Your Brightness
According to a Harvard study, reducing your monitor brightness from 100 per cent to 70 per cent can lower total energy usage by up to 20 per cent. As a latent benefit, lowering brightness reduces eye strain, one of the leading maladies affecting office workers.
Use Tracking Protection
If websites selling your data to third parties isn’t motivation enough to use enhanced tracking protection, consider that data tracking requires huge amounts of energy and spews tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Browsers such as Firefox, DuckDuckGo, and Brave protect your privacy and disable energy-intensive cookies.
Ecosia goes even further. In addition to protecting your personal data, it uses 100 per cent of its profits to fight climate change, 80 per cent of those profits to planting trees. According to its own calculations, every search removes 0.5 kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Curb Online Shopping
Digital sales shattered previous records during the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating an already rampant online shopping problem. Not only do platforms like Amazon and Alibaba demand immense amounts of energy to power their servers, last-mile shipping could see a 30 per cent increase in emissions by 2030. The resulting congestion could add as many as 11 minutes to the average commute. Even worse, one in three online purchases is returned, resulting in two billion kilograms of perfectly good merchandise going into the landfill every year in the U.S. alone.
Shipping is an inherently carbon-intensive industry, especially in countries that rely on truck freight rather than long-haul trains. Reducing our online shopping habit, even incrementally, would make an enormous impact—and keep local bricks-and-mortar businesses afloat.
Buy Crypto With Care
Aside from their extreme volatility, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum use more energy than many countries. A single bitcoin produces emissions equivalent to 330,000 credit card transactions. It would require planting 300 million trees just to offset bitcoin’s approximately 57 million tons of annual CO2 emissions.
While some coins, such as ethereum, claim they will move to a more sustainable “proof-of-stake” model, these emissions reductions have yet to take place, and given that our window to reduce GHG emissions is shrinking by the day, it might be prudent to forgo crypto while it gobbles our remaining carbon budget.
Everything from light bulbs to laptops and microwaves necessitates energy to produce and leaches harmful chemicals into the environment when improperly disposed of. The UN E-waste Monitor determined that the average person creates 7.3 kilograms of e-waste per year, with wealthy countries like the United States and China leading the way.
The best option is to avoid buying electronics altogether. If that isn’t an option, consider fixing an old device with a service like iFixit or buying a refurbished item from an online retailer such as Back Market. When a device is at the end of its life, consider donating or recycling through a business or your local municipal waste service.
If you have a website, consider hosting with a company like GreenGeeks, which matches its power consumption with 300 per cent renewable energy and plants one tree for every new account. As a result, GreenGeek’s websites are functionally carbon negative.
For the growing share of the population that works from home, consider installing rooftop solar or a home wind generator. If you rent or can’t afford a new installation, a community solar garden might be a good fit. Look for community solar providers in your area to save money on your electric bill and make your home office greener.
Power Down and Go Outside
The single best way to reduce your digital carbon footprint is to unplug your devices and occupy yourself with now-archaic activities like reading a book, going for a walk, or planting a garden. Not only does unplugging curtail phantom loads, it also has a host of mental, social, and physical benefits.
Remember, individuals are not primarily responsible for climate change, but collective action can save energy, empower communities, and create a blueprint for a sustainable future. Next time you’re itching to check social media, resist the urge and pursue an age-old, carbon-neutral pastime.