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Looping you in: the carbon cost of email

Gunnar Menzel
April 9, 2020

Years ago, when the internet was young and email was the killer app, people signed off with phrases like: “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” Almost nobody uses lines like that anymore (can you imagine printing out your emails?). But the big environmental cost of emails – the energy burned by just sending and storing them – is largely ignored.

You might be wondering how much carbon an email can possibly cost. Of course, the answer is: very little. The problem is the sheer number of them. Green energy supplier OVO recently calculated that if people in the UK sent just one fewer email per day, it would save 16,433 tons of carbon in a year – equivalent to more than 80,000 holiday flights from the UK to Spain. It’s not called a carbon copy (Cc:) for nothing.

“Not sure if you saw my last email … ”

The email example is very similar to the YouTube example discussed in part one of this series – that views of YouTube’s most popular video have emitted as much carbon as 40,000 US household in a year. They are both examples of the hidden carbon cost of ICT. Hidden because we can’t see the emissions, and because each of our individual clicks is such a tiny fraction of the total, it’s hard to comprehend our contribution to the problem.

As I discussed in part two, part of the solution must come from data centers achieving greater energy efficiency, and switching to renewable energy, but consumer demand is the other side of the equation.

Energy Efficiency Labelling

“FYI … ”

The situation with data use today is similar to the situation with electrical appliance use decades ago. When people first became aware of the threat of climate change, it was difficult for the individual to take their own contributions seriously. “There are billions of lightbulbs in the world” we thought to ourselves. “What difference does it make if I turn one more on or off?”

Part of the answer to that challenge was the introduction of energy efficiency labelling, like this EU example.

Labelling allowed consumers to see immediately that not all washing machines/light bulbs/televisions are the same, and that their buying decisions could make a difference. Manufacturers very quickly improved the efficiency of their products so as not to receive a low rating, which meant overall efficiency soared. In the EU, the efficiency scales have been recalibrated several times as efficiencies improved. New rating labels will come into effect in March 2021 since, once again, almost every appliance now achieves the top tier.

“Please advise…”

What if we could do the same for our online activity? What if before you used a messaging app, or joined a game server, or bought something online, you could see how energy efficient that provider’s ICT infrastructure was? If the history of appliance labeling is any indication, it could exert highly effective pressure on the ICT sector to chase energy efficiency.

In this scenario, energy efficiency wouldn’t just be a cost-saving exercise, it would be essential to maintaining a brand in a world where many ICT end consumers would be actively seeking the most environmentally responsible providers.