Six Things You Can Do To Reduce The Carbon Footprint of Your Internet Usage

Six Things You Can Do To Reduce The Carbon Footprint of Your Internet Usage

Did you know that global internet usage is responsible for the same amount of carbon emissions as the airline industry?

As people who understand the way the internet works, this fact should have always been something we were conscious of, but the truth is that learning this was somewhat of a rude awakening. Sure, if we really thought about it, we could have put two and two together, but it is so easy to consume content online and not think about it.

That said, now that we are aware of the correlation between our digital footprint and our carbon footprint, we are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of our online habits. Why? Because as inhabitants of this planet and avid users of the internet, we believe that we have a responsibility to be mindful of our consumption, including content consumption.

How Is It Exactly That the Internet Consumes So Much Carbon?

Because online content is not physical, it is often easy to forget that for every action we take online, natural resources are consumed. With this, we think that it is worth breaking down the sources of this massive environmental impact.

The most obvious to digital users is that the devices they consume content on require electricity to run. However, compared to the other, more energy-intensive parts of the process, this electricity is responsible for just a small fraction of the carbon emitted when consuming content.

The fact that there is carbon emitted every time you send an email, scroll social media or binge-watch Netflix may come as a surprise. This is because the process by which the content magically appears on our screens is a total mystery to most people.

The truth is, content doesn’t magically appear on your screen. All online content is ‘hosted’ on a physical computer that lives in a data center and runs 24/7. The ever increasing demand for online content requires that these computers run all the time. These computers, of course, require electricity to run.

Computers in a data center, consuming carbon.
One small row cabinets full of computers in a data center. Data centers are often over 100,000 square feet in size, filled with many rows like this.

If you’ve ever had too many Chrome tabs open, you know that when computers are working hard they get hot. This is why you hear the fan turn on to cool your computer down. The computers hosting content 24/7 also get hot, meaning that the A/C in these data centers also run 24/7. A/C requires a lot of electricity too.

What Can I Do To Reduce My Online Carbon Footprint?

This is the question you probably came here seeking answers to. So here are six relatively easy things you can do to reduce the amount of carbon you create through using the internet: 

  1. Spend less time on social media.
  2. Turn off autoplay on YouTube and Netflix.
  3. Skip unnecessary “Thank You” emails.
  4. Delete old files that you are storing on the cloud.
  5. Download content that you stream repeatedly.
  6. Use the green search engine “Ecosia” instead of Google.
A man consuming content on a park bench in nature
Nature sits in the background of all online consumption. How can we preserve the environment we are consuming in?

Spend Less Time on Social Media

Of all the items on the list, this one is likely the hardest to do for most people. That said, it is also one of the most impactful ways to reduce the environmental impact of your web usage. We all know that pictures and videos now make up the majority of social media feeds. Pictures and videos also account for close to 75% of the internet’s carbon footprint. 

This means that reducing the amount of time you spend on social media each day by 10-20% can seriously reduce your carbon footprint. Evidence suggests that doing this may also make you happier. Win-Win! 

That said, we know that social media is designed to be addictive, and that breaking a scrolling habit is difficult. To help you on your journey, here are some tips to help you cut back. 

A graph depicting decreased social media consumption leading to decreased carbon consumption.
The result we are hoping to help you achieve with this blog post.

Turn off Autoplay on YouTube and Netflix

Video streaming alone accounts for 60% of all internet usage. This means that cutting back on our streaming can have a powerful impact on our digital carbon footprint. In the year 2021, where many of us are stuck at home, asking people to cut out their Netflix binges seems unfair.

However, we all have had the experience of falling asleep watching Netflix and waking up hours later to discover that 3-4 episodes of the show we were watching have auto-played while we were sleeping. Well, carbon was consumed to stream each episode, but nobody was even watching! 

Fortunately, Netflix allows autoplay to be disabled, and so does Youtube! Disabling autoplay is a quick and easy win in the battle to reduce the environmental impact of your internet usage. To learn how to disable autoplay on Netflix, click here. To learn how to disable autoplay on Youtube, click here

Skip Unnecessary “Thank You” Emails

According to the BBC, if every adult in the UK sent one less ‘thank you’ email per year, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road. That is a lot of carbon saved! 

In the same vein, make sure you are unsubscribed from mailing lists you don’t read regularly. All of those promotional emails you get every day but never read can be stopped and will save you enough carbon to send those ‘thank you’ emails if you feel like you need to.

Delete Old Files That You Are Storing on the Cloud

Just like all the other online content out there, the files you keep on the ‘Cloud’ are stored in energy-intensive data centers. With cloud storage being so cheap, or even free, it is easy to mindlessly fill up cloud storage with files that you don’t care about. Well, that mindlessness has an environmental impact. 

There is an easy fix for reducing the carbon footprint of your cloud storage. We recommend deleting old files entirely and/or storing them on a physical hard drive instead of leaving them to collect dust on the cloud.

If doing a digital declutter of your cloud feels too hard, maybe you could switch cloud storage providers and put all your digital clutter on Google Drive, the most eco-friendly cloud storage provider out there. 

Download Content That You Stream Repeatedly

Similar to moving your files from the cloud to a physical storage device, downloading content that you repeatedly stream will make that consumption greener. If you find an album you like on Spotify or Apple Music,  go ahead and download it. This way, when you go back to listen to it, your device will be doing all the work, and the data centers won’t have to. 

Use the Green Search Engine “Ecosia” Instead of Google. 

While searches are small potatoes compared to carbon-intensive processes such as video streaming, every search on Google uses energy. With most people making multiple searches per day, the environmental impact of searches adds up. 

To combat the environmental impact of searching the web, Ecosia plants one tree for every 45 searches made using their engine. This may seem insignificant, but if just 25% of google searches were made on Ecosia each day instead of Google, Ecosia would be able to fund the planting of over 16 million trees per day. 

A screenshot of the Ecosia landing page, a search engine provider aiming to offset carbon emissions from search by planting trees.
Ecosia is a search engine provider aiming to offset carbon emissions from searches by planting trees.

You Now Know What to Do, but Will You Do It?

Now that you know the true cost of our online consumption and have six ways to reduce it, we hope you will pick at least one thing from this list and do it. Bonus points if you share this information with your friends so that they have the opportunity to reduce their digital carbon footprint too.

We would also encourage you to get creative or even challenge yourself further. Perhaps knowing the environmental impact of your online habits will be a point in favor of forgoing another hour of scrolling or night of Netflix. Maybe instead of screen time, you will find unexpected benefits like being able to finally start that book you’ve been meaning to read for months instead! 

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