How to reduce your digital carbon footprint

Our digital selves pollute more than we think. Here are some quick fixes | By Alice Cruickshank

How to reduce your digital carbon footprint

Did you know that the carbon footprint of our gadgets and the internet accounts for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions? (That's more than air travel!)

While big tech has a lot to answer for here (we’d like to see servers powered by green energy only please, thank you), there are also changes we individuals can make to lessen our impact. From unsubscribing from pesky email newsletters to changing how often we buy new devices, here are some simple suggestions to cut down on your digital CO2 usage.

1. Buy refurbished or secondhand devices

Researchers at McMaster University have found that creating a new smartphone generates as much CO2 as using an existing smartphone for a decade. That’s because mining the rare minerals needed to power our devices represents 85% to 95% of the phone’s total CO2 emissions over two years. While it’s unlikely that you’ll hold on to your phone for a whole decade, choosing a refurbished phone over a brand new model when it’s time for a replacement will help extend the life cycle of each device and lower its carbon footprint.

What you use your phone for makes a difference too. Unsurprisingly, mobile data is the biggest CO2 guzzler, with 1GB of data using 0.3kg of CO2. A one minute call uses 0.1g of CO2, while sending a text message (SMS) produces 0.014g of CO2. Using WiFi over data where available, and texting over calling. can add up to a significant carbon saving over time.

2. De-clutter your email inbox

An overflowing inbox is more than just stressful—it’s bad for the planet. That’s because the servers needed to send, receive, and store our emails are energy-intensive. Author and environmentalist Mike Berners-Lee calculated back in 2010 that a spam email generates 0.3g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), while a regular email creates closer to 4g CO2e—the footprint is bigger here as you’ll use electricity to read and respond. An email containing a large attachment, image, or .gif can create as much as 50g of CO2e.

The first step in reducing your email carbon footprint is to think whether you really need to press send. According to research from Ovo Energy, if every Brit sent one less ‘thank you’ email a day, we would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, or 245kg each. Another great tactic is to unsubscribe from mailing lists you’re not interested in, so that you receive fewer emails in general.

3. Turn your computer off rather than standby mode

According to the University of Southampton, a PC with one 19" LCD screen would consume 382 Kg of CO2 per year if left on all day, every day. And while standby mode might seem like the solution, this leads to something called a ‘vampire draw’ where devices still draw in energy despite not being in use. Turning off your computer when not in use, as well as any extra hardware like printers and speakers, can dramatically reduce their energy consumption.

There are better ways to use your devices when they are on, too. Harvard Law School's energy manager found that reducing your computer monitor brightness from 100% to 70% can save up to 20% of the energy the monitor uses.

4. Change your search engine

The internet is responsible for around 1 billion tonnes of CO2e emissions each year, thanks to the mammoth servers required to power it—that’s about 2% of global emissions. The good news is that many of the big tech companies like Google we rely on every day are technically carbon neutral. The better news is that you can switch up your internet usage to be actively carbon negative by changing search engines.

Ecosia plants trees to offset its user's carbon impact, with the company stating each search removes 1 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. Ecosia plants one tree every 50 searches, and on average, these trees will each remove 50 kg of CO2 during an expected 15 year lifetime. With the average person making between three and four searches each day, it doesn’t take long to rack up your own personal tree-planting, carbon-offsetting impact.

Article written by Alice Cruickshank (@styledbyalice)

Photo by Barez Omer on Unsplash