Photo of a woman sitting at a cafe window using her laptop

Environmental footprint of everything we do online

30 Sep 21

Are cat videos causing climate change? By swiping left am I rejecting environmentalism? Can I Netflix and chill the planet? Well, thanks to research by Zero Waste Scotland we have the answers.

Since March 2020 our lives have become increasingly digitally focused with zoom meetings, Netflix binges and TikTok dance crazes now the norm.

With the nation stuck at home we saw temporary falls in some areas of emissions due to reductions in travel and commuting, and some of which may become permanent as people reimagine their lives post-pandemic.

However, our reliance on digital tech has led to carbon footprint increases in other areas. Digital can be better than some more conventional activities, but it isn’t always as straightforward as we may think. Read on to find out more.

Head in the clouds

We tend to think of our online lives living in the ‘cloud’, but the reality is far more complicated.

The energy required to power devices and the ability to store and transfer our data comes from data centres. Data centres are the physical infrastructures that allow us to use our TV’s, laptops and smartphones but they require a tremendous amount of energy (3% of the global energy supply), in turn generating large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions.

To put this in perspective let’s draw a comparison.

Most of us understand that air travel is a significant contributor to climate change. If, as a passenger, you took a flight from Edinburgh airport to Glasgow airport you would be individually responsible for producing 8.64kg of the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, which would be a pretty substantial carbon footprint for a short 67km trip.

If you tally up all your online activity over a given week, you’ll discover that these actions produce 8.62kg of CO2, the same as a domestic flight! 

All of your online activity over a given week equals to nearly 100% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight. #ConsumingResponsibly 

Infographic of the weekly environmental footprint of everything we do online

Now, we’re not suggesting you give away all your devices and go live in a cave. After all, technology has made life easier and allowed us to stay connected with family and friends.

Instead, we want to demonstrate what areas of your life are contributing the most to climate change and how you can lessen your impact with a few sustainable swaps while still making the most of your gadgets.

Working 9 to 5G

Weekly work carbon footprint = 28% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight.

The shift to remote working has drastically altered our working lives with at home employees having more meetings and emails than ever before.

The average employee is now sending 280 emails a week with each one accounting for 4g of emissions, increasing to 50g for ones with large attachments  - and this isn’t even accounting for the influx of emails we receive.

Our dependence on video calls is just as bad with a single hour-long meeting racking up an astonishing 157g of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e), which surely replaces “you’re on mute” as the most exasperating thing about these calls.

What can you do?

Swapping email attachments for links to documents, avoiding needless CC/reply all/thank you emails as well as unsubscribing from mailing lists you don’t need or want are just a few small ways to ensure the work gets done in a more sustainable way.

Also, leaving your camera off can help reduce the footprint of calls by 96%, meaning you can turn off without guilt by proclaiming your saving the environment and then sit there comfortably in your pyjamas.

Behind the screens

Weekly video streaming carbon footprint = 10% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight.

After a long day at work looking at your laptop screen why not relax at home by staring at your phone screen while a show plays on your TV screen for background noise?

Sadly, for many of us this is just a normal day, as the average person is now racking up 14 hours a week watching streaming sites such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ with an additional 10 hours of viewing online video apps like YouTube. This adds up to a sizeable 864g CO2e a week, the equivalent of flying 6.7km.

What can you do?

Dimming your screen brightness down to 70% is a quick win that reduces the energy used by 20%, and has the added benefit of reducing eye strain.

Surveys on streaming habits have shown that a large proportion of screen time isn’t even watched with many people falling asleep, being on their phone or getting distracted in other ways. Turning off auto-play and downloading videos before viewing instead of streaming will help reduce your footprint.

Even better, sticking to a “single-screen rule” has been found to increase productivity and improve your focus on the task at hand.

Photo of a person scrolling through netflix on a tablet

Sustainably social

Weekly social media carbon footprint = 44% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight.

Whether you like, tweet, snap or swipe there is no denying it, social media is now an intrinsic part of our everyday lives, and one that we can’t seem to pry ourselves away from.

On average we spend 2.4 hours a day on these apps with a single minute of scrolling generating 1.55g CO2e. This gives you a weekly total the same as if you had flown from Edinburgh airport to Bathgate (12km).

While they might not be viewed as social media in the traditional sense, instant messenger apps such as WhatsApp still play their part with every message, GIF and photo sent contributing to climate change.

In fact, sharing your favourite memes with your group chat is the biggest contributor with a monstrous weekly total of 2.35kg CO2e, 26% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight.

What can you do?

Again, we’re not suggesting you delete your accounts as we can cut our digital carbon footprint by changing the way use our devices, with one of the simplest being to switch the way we share messages.

Sharing and chatting over mobile networks is profoundly energy intensive so to save the energy and data make sure you connect to WiFi as much as you can. This also goes for updates and cloud backups, turn off automatic settings and schedule these actions for a time when you are again connected to the WiFi.

A less popular option is to cut back on the GIFs and memes. Expressing yourself through the emoji’s (that are already on your phone as part of its operating system) is better for the environment than sending the latest Leonardo DiCaprio GIFs and memes, which need to be transferred and stored on devices to view it.

Playing it cool

Weekly gaming/music carbon footprint = 17% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight.

Another relaxing past time we need to examine is video games, which has grown to become one of the most beloved forms of entertainment.

The popularity in mobile/handheld games such as CandyCrush and Animal Crossing as well as flagship cinematic console games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty has also turned gaming into a carbon intensive activity.

At 57g CO2e per hour of active use gaming doesn’t initially appear so bad, this is in part due to the fact these games are responsive meaning they only need to render what is on the screen at any one time as oppose to streaming a full HD movie.

The problem comes from the downloading of games, update patches and made worse by the trend of cloud gaming (real-time streaming) which require many gigabytes of data (1 gigabyte = 4 hours of video call).

This means that by completing a game like Fortnite you produce 5,400g CO2e, which is virtually the same as travelling 41.5km by plane.

Infographic showing the carbon impact of our online activities

What can you do?

While ditching the discs seems an inevitable step, by lowering resolutions gamers could lessen the damage.

The manufactures are also playing their part by signing up to the UN Playing for the Planet Alliance. Not only will they be including ‘green nudges’ in gameplay but Sony are boasting a low-powered mode for their new PlayStation 5 (albeit an optional mode), Google Stadia is swapping to run their data centres on renewable energy and Microsoft is committing to making their Xbox consoles carbon neutral.

Don’t play it again, Sam

You might be sitting there saying to yourself “fine, I’ll just turn off my screens and relax by listening to some music” but we have some bad news for you.

Most people would assume digital versions of songs and podcasts is a better alternative to physical CD’s and records but research shows that streaming habits have led to “significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music”.

This is due to 1.9g of CO2 emissions being produced per song stream and with our love of apps like Spotify our weekly listening adds up to 8% of an Edinburgh to Glasgow flight emissions.

With 2/3 Spotify users preferring to listen to curated playlists over random songs opting to download playlists and listen offline rather than continually streaming the same songs is a good way to reduce energy use as you’ll only be pulling the data from the server once.

Downloading playlists to listen offline rather than continually streaming the same songs is a good way to reduce energy use as you’ll only be pulling the data from the server once. #ConsumingResponsibly

Hopefully, this article has opened your eyes to the impact our digital life can have on the environment around us and we’ll think carefully before we shop online or jump on the trend of trading cryptocurrencies/NFTs.

With awareness of the problem and the technology at our fingertips we can begin to harness this power for good and use it to tackle climate change.