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Digital carbon footprint: the unseen impact

11/4/2023

In 2021, it is estimated that more than 300 billion emails were sent daily worldwide. This figure is expected to increase by 17% by 2025. Of course, we are moving towards digitalization, often with the intention of becoming more sustainable. But is digitization sustainable as we are doing it? Is the Internet an immaterial place that has no impact?

Sending a single email generates between 1 and 50 grams of CO2 equivalent, according to some experts. Measuring the digital carbon footprint helps us to know the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). And thus, it also helps us to reduce it, and to compensate it when necessary.

What is our digital carbon footprint?

According to expert estimates, the digital carbon footprint accounts for between 1.8% and 2.8% of total CO2 equivalent emissions into the atmosphere. As the digitization of companies and cities continues to increase, this figure continues to grow. Of course, digitalization can be an ally in achieving sustainability and well-being. Hence, it is a priority in the European Funds (Next Generation), and in Spain it gives rise to aid such as the digital kit. However, we must understand the impacts on sustainability that this digitization can have. 

Our digital activity produces invisible or silent pollution, because we think that the virtual does not have physical implications, but it does. Every action we take online involves energy consumption andCO2 emissions. Data servers, devices for sending and receiving information... how sustainable are they? All this is the physical support of digitalization, and it has its impacts.

Internet: a country that consumes 7% of the world's energy.

As in our daily lives, every action we take online also has an associated ecological footprint. And according to a report signed by Greenpeace, our daily use of the Internet could consume up to 7% of the energy produced worldwide. 

Digital energy expenditure comes mainly from the data centers that house all the information on the Internet. The information "in the cloud" is not immaterial, it consumes energy and water. According to data presented by the Joint Research Centre, in 2020, data centers were responsible for approximately 4% of European electricity demand and 5% of greenhouse gas emissions, an amount comparable to that emitted by the aviation industry. Following the current trend of digitization, this figure could increase by 60% in the next 10 years. 

For example, a report by the State Grid Energy Research Institute of China indicated that, in 2030, electricity consumption by the data center sector in China will exceed 400 billion kWh, representing 3.7% of the country's total electricity consumption. In the case of China, 73% of this energy comes from coal-fired sources. 

The water footprint of data centers.

In addition to energy, data centers are also large consumers of natural resources such as water.   

For data centers to function well, the temperature should be between 18 °C and 27 °C. Relative humidity must be between 20% and 80%. Maintaining these conditions entails a high water footprint.

According to Data center water consumption, water consumption in data centers in the U.S. alone reaches 1.7 billion liters per day, 57% of which is potable water. In addition, around 20% of data centers in the United States already rely on watersheds that are under stress due to drought and other factors, according to the IEEE.

What can we do to reduce our digital carbon footprint?

The digital carbon footprint of companies and organizations is the most relevant. However, as citizens we also have an important role to play in digital sustainability.

An article published in Climática proposes 10 tips to reduce, as individuals, our digital carbon footprint:

  • If you are playing a video, and you only want to listen to the audio and not watch it, it is preferable to use audio-only applications rather than audio and video applications. 
  • Save in your browser's bookmarks those pages you visit most often instead of searching for them every time. With each search, thousands of results are loaded, which means more energy. 
  • Connect to the Internet via cable when you are at home or in the office. It consumes less energy than using the wifi connection.
  • If you are away from home, you will consume up to 15 times less energy if you request access to the wifi network than if you use 3G, 4G or 5G. 
  • Download content instead of streaming it.
  • Avoid video calls: Disabling the camera in a video call can reduce the impact by 60%.
  • Clean your email inbox: Deleting 30 messages can save 222 W, about the equivalent of an energy-saving light bulb left on for a day.
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters that no longer interest you.
  • Disable automatic video playback in your browser or in your social media settings.
  • Turn off the router at night or during prolonged absences. 

If you are a company and you are concerned about contributing to a more sustainable digitalization, you can consult our brand design and sustainable web design services: https://www.monnou.com/. In our Stories section we have also talked about La web monnou: a case of sustainable web.

We can also, as companies and as citizens, choose to offset our digital carbon footprint. This can be helped by methods such as CO2mpensamos, which compensate in real time by supporting the countries that are already most affected by climate change. In this way, they contribute not only to the reduction of the carbon footprint, but also to climate justice.

Images by Mo Eid.

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