Have you ever thought about the size of your digital carbon footprint?
There’s no doubt that the internet has changed our world forever, making us more connected and productive – not to mention keeping us entertained 24 hours a day. But at the same time, every online action or new device purchase requires a significant amount of electricity – much of which comes directly from power stations burning fossil fuels.
When we look at the carbon footprint of our digital activities, we can break it down into two categories:
- The use of internet bandwidth, such as web browsing, emails, online file storage, and streaming services. The internet is a giant global network of servers and data centers that require considerable amounts of energy and water. If the internet were a country, it would have a carbon footprint the size of the entire United Kingdom – and it’s getting bigger every year.
- The manufacturing and use of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and laptops. In 2019 alone, more than 1.5 billion smartphones and 250 million personal computers were sold around the world. Digital products contain many rare materials that need to be mined and transported, in addition to the emissions from manufacturing and shipping. We then need electricity to power these devices, such as running a desktop computer or charging a smartphone.
Thankfully, there are many simple and effective changes you can make to reduce your digital carbon footprint. And whether it’s the way you browse the internet, the setup of your equipment, or the choices you make when purchasing new items – you have the power to make a big difference.
1. Adjust Your Computer and Monitor Settings
If you’re running a desktop or laptop computer, one of the simplest ways to offset your digital carbon footprint is to optimize your power consumption via the following methods:
- Reduce the brightness of your monitor. A study by Harvard University found that reducing your monitor’s brightness from 100% down to 70% can reduce its energy consumption by 20%.
- Adjust your standby and sleep settings. When you take breaks from using your computer, you should set the device to go into “sleep” mode to conserve power. A desktop computer can use up to 320 watts of energy when in use – but only 5-10 watts when in sleep mode.
- Turn off devices when they’re not in use. When you’re finished using your computer, shut it down entirely and turn it off at the switch – and do the same for printers, scanners, and any other connected devices.
As a bonus tip, you can also change your smartphone to “dark” mode, which lowers the screen brightness and conserves battery life. Lower battery consumption means you won’t have to charge it as often – and you’ll save extra electricity.
2. Reuse, Repair, and Buy 2nd Hand Items
One of the biggest environmental problems with digital devices is not just how many of them we buy – but how quickly we replace existing models.
“…buying one new phone takes as much energy as recharging and operating a smartphone for an entire decade.” Mark Wilson, FastCompany.com
We generally only keep smartphones for around two years before we upgrade them, but the recycling rate of unwanted smartphones sits at a meagre 1%. Based on a two-year lifespan, up to 95% of a smartphone’s carbon footprint comes from its manufacturing process, including the mining and transportation of the precious raw materials needed to make it.
If you want to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your digital lifestyle, consider purchasing 2nd hand or refurbished items instead of brand-new ones – and if you’re not sure where to look, try out this comprehensive guide. Similarly, you should repair damaged equipment whenever you can, which extends its lifespan while using fewer natural resources.
3. Streamline Your Inbox
As we touched on in a recent article, most of us don’t think about greenhouse gasses when we open our inbox – but every email that we send, receive, and store has a carbon footprint. And considering that worldwide we send around 300 billion emails a day – they’re having a significant environmental impact.
“While the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment.” Mike Berners-Lee, Lancaster University
If you’d like some simple ways to reduce your inbox’s CO2 emissions, consider these tips:
- Clean out your deleted emails. When you delete an email, it might disappear from your inbox, but it’s usually left sitting in your trash folder. And because remaining emails are stored on a server, they still use bandwidth and energy.
- Think twice before replying. Many of us respond to emails with simple messages such as “thank you”, “received”, or “ok”, which are often unnecessary but also add to carbon emissions. A study found that if every person in the UK sent one fewer email a day, it would save more than 16,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
- Unsubscribe from unwanted emails. When you receive promotional or spam emails that you don’t want, rather than just deleting them, unsubscribe from the list altogether. This will reduce your email traffic, lower your data consumption – and make it easier to manage your inbox.
While each individual email has only a tiny CO2 footprint, we’re sending and receiving more of them every day – and the trend is only expected to continue. By being smarter with how you use your inbox, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary internet bandwidth – and lower your carbon footprint in the process.
4. Plant Trees Every Time You Search the Web
If you like the idea of helping the environment just by browsing the web, then you’ll love the Ecosia search engine. Launched in 2009, Ecosia uses 80% of its profits to plant trees across more than 9,000 sites around the world, including Africa, South America, and Asia. The company has already donated more than 110 million trees – and claims to plant a new one every 0.8 seconds.
Ecosia utilizes the Bing search engine in addition to its own algorithms, which provide a simple and user-friendly experience – even if it’s not as comprehensive as Google at times. Still, the company claims to have over five million users and is now available as a Chrome extension and mobile browser from Android and iOS app stores.
Ecosia claims that it takes around 45 unique searches to plant a tree – and the browser even keeps a running tally to help you track your progress.
5. Block Auto-Play Videos
Tech companies discovered very quickly that auto-play videos are a great way to keep people on a website. And while you may find them distracting or even downright annoying – they’re a proven way to keep your eyes on the screen.
But regardless of whether you like them or not, they also chew up a significant amount of bandwidth – which means more energy consumption and higher carbon emissions. If you want to disable auto-play videos and reduce your digital footprint, there are several ways you can do it:
- Use the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which has a built-in function to stop auto-play videos
- Download an extension for Google Chrome from the Chrome Web Store
- Within the Android Google Play Store, you can also disable auto-play videos from the settings menu
- If you run Safari on iOS, follow Apple’s guide to disable auto-play videos
Blocking unwanted videos is a useful way to reduce the CO2 emissions of your online browsing – not to mention creating an enjoyable and clutter-free experience.
6. Switch to a Green Website Host
If you run a website, blog, or eCommerce store, you can reduce your digital carbon footprint even further by working with a green website host. The companies offset their emissions in several different ways, such as planting new trees, using energy efficiency measures, and sourcing renewable electricity from solar and wind farms.
For example, GreenGeeks is a hosting service that offsets 300% of its energy consumption via renewable energy certificates. Each year, the company calculates the electricity consumption of its entire hosting network – and then pays to ensure that three times this amount has been put back into the grid in the form of wind power.
For more information, you can view a listing of green website hosts on the TechRadar website, or if you’d like to assess the eco-credentials of your existing site, you can use this helpful online tool to calculate digital carbon footprints.
7. Download Instead of Streaming
Streaming has revolutionized the way we enjoy TV shows, movies, and music – but it has also pushed internet demands to levels that once seemed impossible. In fact, it’s estimated that Netflix now consumes around 15% of the world’s total online bandwidth.
And a key fact to be aware of is that you generally use the same amount of data (and therefore energy) whether you’re streaming or downloading a file. For example, downloading a song to your device might allow you to listen to it indefinitely for just 5 MB of data – but streaming it 20 times will use 100 MB.
So, when it comes to your favorite content that you stream over and over again – particularly songs, albums, and TV shows – try downloading them instead. With the data stored on a local hard drive instead of the cloud, you can still enjoy your music and videos any time you want – while using only a fraction of the energy.
8. Offset Your Remaining Digital Carbon Footprint
The internet, computers, and smartphones have changed our world more than we could have ever imagined, but with this great technology also comes great responsibility. And while it’s terrific to see the global tech companies making efforts to reduce their CO2 emissions, the internet is still on track to become one of the world’s largest energy consumers.
But by following the advice above, and putting a little more thought into your purchasing and browsing behavior, you should be able to reduce your digital carbon footprint significantly.
And for your remaining emissions – there are simple and affordable ways for you to maintain a healthy environmental balance. Using our carbon footprint calculator, you can measure the impact of your daily activities and then reduce or eliminate your emissions with carbon offsets. Similarly, you can also purchase renewable energy certificates, which support clean energy from large-scale wind farms – and displace energy from fossil fuel sources.
And as the internet powers more and more of our lives, it’s essential for us to promote education, smarter browsing and purchasing decisions – and greener forms of energy.
Thankfully, we can all help the environment with the choices we make every day – without sacrificing the productivity, enjoyment, or convenience of our digital lifestyles.