Unnecessary emails: Not just annoying, but bad for the planet

One Change: 12 billion emails sent every hour consume 4,000 tonnes of fossil fuels

Do you really need to send that email? Photograph: iStock

Do you really need to send that email? Photograph: iStock

 

On one level the internet seems to be inherently greener than the technologies that preceded it, and yet the sheer scale of its expansion leads to entirely new types of energy emissions.

Certainly, banking and paying bills online cuts down significantly on transport, energy, and paper.

Also, technologies like web conferencing, video calls and even live tweeting events could significantly cut down on international flights, if we opted for them over face-to-face meetings more often. Yet, every single search you make, email you send and social media interaction you have has an energetic impact.

Spam email alone consumes the same amount of electricity as all the homes in Denmark

Prof Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University calculated that roughly 5 to 7g of CO2 are emitted for every Google search, which seems paltry until one considers that 5.5 billion searches are done daily. Berners-Lee has also estimated that the carbon cost of an email with a 1 MB (megabyte) attachment is 19g of CO2.

Again, on its own it’s insignificant; but the 12 billion emails sent every hour consume 4,000 tonnes of fossil fuels. If every adult sent one less unnecessary email per day, according to a recent study overseen by Berners-Lee (whose brother Tim invented the world wide web in 1989), the UK alone could lower its carbon footprint by 16,000 tonnes per year.

Spam email alone consumes the same amount of electricity as all the homes in Denmark, according to a 2016 study by the anti-virus software firm, McAfee. The internet of things is set to further increase web traffic, with a new generation of wifi-enabled TVs, heating controls and even doorbells constantly emitting and receiving data, and consuming energy in the process. Sat-Navs and Alexa-type devices add a further burden.

Quixotically, we unplug our stereos and TVs at night, while ignoring the modem in the corner, busily flashing information back and forth to data centres around the wold.

Thousands of times a night, random information is sent from the many electronic items in our homes along a vast agglomeration of circuitry, cables and cooling systems that are often routed through Loudoun County in Virginia, where 70 per cent of the world’s online traffic flows.

Your entire past can fit snugly inside a metal box the size of a pack of cards

These data centres consume the equivalent of five nuclear power plants of energy to keep them operating, and this amount will only increase in the future. EirGrid estimates that 29 per cent of Ireland’s electricity will go to data centres by 2028.

A study in Japan suggests that by 2030, the power requirements of digital services will outstrip the nation’s entire current generation capacity. Data centres will soon have a bigger carbon footprint than the entire aviation industry.

So, is there any single One Change we can make to address this? A first step would be to stop storing our old photos and emails online. Not only is it unreliable, it’s also contributing to climate change. Much better to spend €20 on a hard-drive and download all your files, photos and email to it.

Your entire past can fit snugly inside a metal box the size of a pack of cards. A further, more radical step might be to consider rationing the time we spend binge-streaming videos or liking cat posts, while also curtailing the more pointless emails, particularly those with large attachments.

Admittedly, these seem like rather severe steps to contemplate, and yet I’m sure many of us feel we would benefit personally from spending less time online, too.

Cutting down on our internet use will not only help the planet, but could considerably improve our concentration, state of mind, and our appreciation of the physical and natural world around us.

One Change is a weekly column about the changes, big and small, that we can make in our daily lives for the good of the planet

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