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Are you aware of your digital carbon footprint?

3 Dec 2021

The big lifestyle changes we can make as individuals to reduce our overall carbon footprint are clear– greener diet, sustainable travel, less consumption, more reusing and recycling. But are you aware of your digital carbon footprint?

Technology has an impact on your carbon footprint.

A digital carbon footprint is the CO2 emissions resulting from the production, use and data transfer of digital devices and infrastructure.

In an increasingly digital world, our day to day lives have transformed with the use of technology. From endless remote meetings to a multitude of apps and streaming services to choose from, we’re consumed with being online and connected. As a result, the use of electrical devices and the volume of data we generate is booming.

Every minute spent scrolling a newsfeed, browsing the internet, streaming a video all contribute to our digital carbon footprint. Global email usage generates as much CO2 as having 7 million extra cars on the road. If each email user in the UK sent 1 less email per day, we could reduce emissions by 16,433 tonnes of CO2; the equivalent of 81,152 flights from London to Madrid.

Maybe it’s time to think twice before hitting ‘reply all’.

Figure 1: The impact of email usage . Data from Science Focus and OVO Energy

A growing tech industry makes it even more pressing that we utilise devices in a sustainable way.

Technology sits at the heart of our professional and personal lives. The number of connected devices is on the rise, expected to reach 55.7 billion by 2025. Three quarters of these devices will connect to an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, generating huge amounts of data. This data needs to be stored, increasing the demand for data centres. According to the International Energy Agency, data centres accounted for nearly 1% of the world’s energy demand in 2019. As a whole, the technology industry is expected to produce around 14% of global emissions by 2040, up from around 3% today.

As well as the energy demand from the usage of electronic devices, their production and disposal have a significant environmental impact. Producing these devices equals or exceeds the carbon cost of using them. It’s difficult to fathom the scale of the of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste generated worldwide in 2019 – an increase of 21% in five years.

Technology solutions will help us combat climate change, but we need a holistic approach that accounts for our digital carbon footprint.

Figure 2: The impact of e-waste according to Capgemini’s Research Institute

And it is the responsibility of companies, policy makers and individuals alike

All eyes are on the technology industry to lead the field of Sustainable IT. Adopting a scaled sustainable IT strategy not only helps to address the climate crisis, but also enabled organisations to achieve an average 12% cost reduction. It can improve ESG scores, brand image, customer satisfaction and deliver tax savings. Some organisations are taking the opportunity to mitigate their carbon impact; Microsoft, a key cloud service provider, has announced plans to switch to 100% renewable energy to run its data centres by 2025 and Google aims to run its data centres on carbon-free energy by 2030.

It’s not only up to organisations to be mindful of their digital carbon footprint. At the beginning of this year, France implemented a law requiring electrical equipment display a ‘repairability index’, to help extend the lifetime of consumer devices. As better-informed consumers we can also help drive changes by demanding more responsible behaviour from organisations. 79% of consumers are already changing their purchasing preferences based on sustainability issues.

What can we as individuals do right now?

We can all start practicing more sustainable technology habits to reduce our digital carbon footprint. We created this quiz & infographic to test your knowledge on the environmental impact of your digital carbon footprint.

Figure 3: QR code to access the interactive digital carbon footprint quiz

In trying to keep this post short and snappy (to avoid you scrolling for too long), we’ll leave you with some recommendations to reduce your digital carbon footprint:

  1. Every hour of video conferencing creates 1kg of CO2. Turning off video and using audio only can reduce carbon impact by 96%.
  2. The production of electronic devices accounts for 80% of their total lifetime carbon emissions. A University of Edinburgh study found that extending the lifetime of your computer from 4 to 6 years could avoid the equivalent of 190kg of carbon emissions. Avoid the temptation of upgrading devices, or repair, recycle or re-sell still usable equipment to extend its total lifetime.
  3. Streaming online content accounts for 58-60% of internet traffic and generates 300 million tonnes of CO2 a year, roughly 1% of global emissions, according to research by French think tank the Shift Project. For context, 1 tonne of CO2 is equivalent to the average emission generated by one passenger on a return flight from Paris to New York. Leverage lower resolution settings when playing videos and turn off auto-play features.
Figure 4: Top tips to reduce your digital carbon footprint

By adopting sustainable digital practices, both individuals and organisations can help reduce our digital carbon footprint and shape a greener technology future.