8 Ways to Shrink Your Digital Carbon Footprint

The digital world feels limitless. Writing an email seems far less wasteful than mailing a letter and asking for an e-receipt sounds like a great paperless option. When it comes to image files, I frequently find myself taking 20 pictures of my daughter just to get that perfect light or capture a smile. Cloud-based storage has this insinuation of bottomless capacity. It reminds me of the filing cabinets in the movie Bruce Almighty that stretch on for miles.

In 2020 nearly everything digital is cloud based. It’s like having electricity in your home, if you’re fortunate enough to have power you don’t frequently think about the cables in your walls or the plant generating the power. Therefore data storage is in high demand, but not often consciously thought about. The only time I pay much attention to data is when my smartphone reminds me my storage is getting full and I delete the odd photo off my camera roll, but not before I back it all up in the Google Photo cloud.

The truth is though, that data storage isn’t bottomless. At least not from a resource standpoint. The word ‘cloud’ implies that our data exists in some sort of non-physical manner. In reality all cloud data is physically stored in data centers; enormous buildings filled with hard drives on racks.

Stanford Magazine explains that the data centers require extreme amounts of energy to operate. There are miles of fiber optic cables requiring power to transport the data to the centers. These centres never shut down or power off. The hard disk activity also uses power and generates heat which requires constant air conditioning to prevent over heating (source). As more data is generated through internet usage these resource intensive storage centers require even more energy to run.

I am no tech buff, and I am certainly not an expert in the digital sector so I won’t get into detail about gigabytes and pounds of CO2 per image, e-mail, video, google search, etc. I don’t think in those numbers, and they are nearly impossible to visualize. If you want to learn more I have linked several articles below that explain the science and statistics in great detail.

I am however, aware that anything I have on the cloud is taking up space on a hard drive somewhere, requiring power to store there. The good news is, reducing our digital footprints is relatively easy and painless. It’s just a little time and thought, that will go a long way. So here are some ways you can shrink your digital carbon footprint:

Unsubscribe

E-mails generate a lot of carbon emissions. According to Science Focus, “sending 65 emails is roughly equivalent to driving 1km in a car”. So, take a minute to go through your inbox and unsubscribe to unnecessary e-mails. Fast fashion companies are a great place to start (ahem…Old Navy… looking at you with your e-mail sign up at check out). Legally, there must be an “unsubscribe” option within all subscription type emails. Usually they are at the very bottom of the e-mail and sometimes they take you to an external link to update your preferences.

Delete, Delete, Delete

This is a bit time consuming, especially at first. Just like cleaning out your closet the first time but once you have it organized you can better keep it that way. Go through old emails and permanently delete anything you no longer need. Same with your photos on the cloud. I know my google photos app is filled with old screenshots of directions or recipes I have long since deleted off my camera roll. Yet, they are still taking up space in the cloud.

Limit What You Send

According to the New York Post, “more than 64 million ‘unnecessary emails’ are sent every day in the UK, contributing to 23,475 tons of carbon a year to its footprint”. Avoid sending that “thank you” or “lol” reply and reduce the amount you “reply all”. Start a new “eco” joke among coworkers where you are all pitching in by not sending these silly one word replies! According to the Newsroom, sending links instead of attachments also helps to reduce the size of an e-mail.

Part With Old Accounts

Any old accounts you no longer use (e-mail, photo editing, document creators, design space, etc) are all holding your data should you decide to log in again. What a tremendous waste of energy! If you can remember any old accounts, take a minute to permanently delete the account, or at least the data stored on it you don’t need. For example, my Canva account doesn’t need to store old invitations I have made and sent, and my Google Drive doesn’t need to keep holding my english position papers from university.

Choose Green Cloud Providers

Doing your research is part of being a sustainable consumer. Look into the companies you are storing data with and choose wisely. There are companies that run their data centers using renewable energy, and there are many who don’t. As always, be aware of companies claiming to be more eco friendly than they actually are. For more tips on how to avoid greenwashing, check here.

At Home Storage

Not everything is logical to back up on a personal hard drive but for things like photos and important documents, it could be a greener option. Most personal external hard drives are small and only require power when loading them, otherwise they can sit unplugged. Stanford Magazine does a great job of breaking down the difference between cloud storage and personal hard drive storage. The energy needed to save files to the cloud is about a “million times more than the energy you used to save to your hard drive” (source).

Change the Limitless Mindset

Instead of feeling like everything digital has no bounds, be mindful of what you store. Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook automatically save every story to your “history” cloud. Similarly, a server somewhere is storing all Facebook messages and group chats for retrieval even years later. If you don’t need it any more, delete it.

Wifi over Cellular Data

Whenever possible use wifi over cellular data, it requires less energy. Especially for larger data usage such as music and video streaming. According to BBC, “using a phone over a mobile network is at least twice as energy intensive than using it over wi-fi“.

Unplug

Both literally and figuratively. When devices are not in use, power them off and unplug them to avoid using unnecessary power. We can also reduce our tech carbon footprint by using it less in general. Every google search, song stream and minute logged on Netflix has its own carbon footprint. In fact, according to The Newsroom, our streaming and searching requires far more energy than personal storage. The less time you spend on tech, the less energy you use.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Some of us have a little more time at home during the COVID- 19 pandemic. It’s a great opportunity to go through and unsubscribe, delete and shrink your presence on the cloud. It might also be a tempting time to plug in (Facetime, Netflix, video games, etc) but getting off tech has its benefits too for both the planet and our health. How are you keeping your digital carbon footprint to a minimum?

Sources:

  • https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think
  • https://www.computerworld.com/article/3431148/why-data-centres-are-the-new-frontier-in-the-fight-against-climate-change.html
  • https://fortune.com/2019/09/18/internet-cloud-server-data-center-energy-consumption-renewable-coal/
  • https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/
  • https://medium.com/stanford-magazine/carbon-and-the-cloud-d6f481b79dfe
  • https://nypost.com/2019/11/26/your-emails-are-ruining-the-environment-study/

Feature Image of post by Chad Madden on Unsplash

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