A Drop in the Ocean: Lightening my Online Footprint, one Unsubscribe Button at a Time

I always believed the Internet was essentially “green”. Online resources like OneDrive save trees and the need to print, video conferencing – as we are all now acutely aware – prevents millions of miles of air travel, while the Internet’s connectivity has emboldened global climate activism. Our digital lexicon – words like “cloud”, “web”, “lightweight” – supported this idea, conveying ideas of weightlessness and, therefore, harmlessness. To quote The Sound of Music, “how to catch a cloud and pin it down?” Turns out that cloud can not only be pinned down but measured and weighted in carbon emissions so huge they equal those produced by the entire aviation industry. Put another way, if the Internet was a country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint. Yikes.

What is causing this mammoth footprint? A 2017 Greenpeace report cited our devices (responsible for 34% of total emissions), communications networks (29%), data centres (21%), and the manufacturing of all three (16%) as the four principal areas of consumption. However, while our devices become more energy-efficient, power-hungry data centres are amassing a larger footprint year-on-year as our demand for constant content increases exponentially. It is estimated that these digital factories, often run on fossil fuels, will account for 13% of global electricity consumption by 2030.

This is where I would typically reel off further terrifying statistics about the environmental impact of our online consumption. Except, after the turbulence and loneliness of the past few months, creating guilt around the one thing that has brought us solace, community, the ability to keep working, and vital distraction feels not just wrong but disrespectful. 

I don’t want to turn the Internet’s essentiality and entertainment into yet another source of climate guilt, particularly now. So, instead of detailing the myriad ways Internet usage is harmful, allow me to instead show how we can make that usage better. Better for the planet, our productivity, and even our own mental wellbeing.

“You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail”

306.4 billion emails are sent every day and, despite Nora Ephron’s best attempts to prove otherwise, most of these are not missives of romantic import. Thus, there’s never been more reason to reacquaint ourselves with the ‘unsubscribe’ button and socially distance from the email chains, petitions, and gym membership deals overstimulating our brains and overflowing our inboxes. Every email not sent is a saving – remember this.

The same is true of work emails. As someone still “building” their career, I have a tendency to answer every email simply to say, “Look at me, I’m so dedicated, so DILIGENT!” Not anymore. I do not need to respond to three separate email threads when one short reply will suffice. I do not need to hit that pot-stirring ‘Reply All’ either to make a point or prove productivity to a dozen disinterested colleagues and/or strangers. Responding only when necessary – and to whom it is necessary – saves you time and the planet energy. 

For the emails you must send to remain employed, compress images and bulky attachments or forego completely in favour of hyperlinks to lower their carbon weight. Passive-aggressively nagging all colleagues to do the same will lower this footprint further.

Mindful over Mindless Scrolling:

The trouble with “mindless scrolling” is that it implies that, because it is unconscious, it is therefore weightless. It’s not. While one user’s Facebook footprint equates annually to a cup of coffee, multiplying this out by Facebook’s 2.38 billion users results in 640,220 collective tonnes. I therefore propose mindful scrolling – substituting our inclination to defer to social media at the first whiff of idleness with curated time to catch up on – and enjoy – the highlights reel. Installing time limits on social apps encourages this, while preventing blackhole expeditions that usually end in self-flagellation. Restricting your scrolling to your phone instead of desktop or laptop, also lowers the carbon footprint.

Searching for The One:

The amount of information available at our fingertips is truly extraordinary. Unfortunately, so too is the energy needed to access that information – from extracting the material from data centres to the loading of web pages. Take action with inaction and reduce your harassing of search engines to a need-to-know basis. Maybe you don’t need to Google the backstory of every actor in that Netflix series. Maybe we can go without a game of hypothetical ‘what ifs’ today. 

However, for the questioning itch you can’t ignore, being specific, including key words, and favouriting regularly-visited websites will lower your carbon footprint by preventing multiple search attempts and the need to scour several webpages. Combining this with a planet-friendly search engine like Ecosia further assuages climate guilt. Not only does Ecosia offset its energy usage with renewables, it plants a tree for every 50 searches, providing global reforestation and deep, personal satisfaction with every quest for knowledge.

Perhaps these actions seem insipid in the grand scale of environmental action. Here’s my theory, though. With less clickbait in your inbox, less interaction with social media and fewer nights talking to Google, the less we are exposed to the advertising of things we don’t need but buy out of sheer opportunism. Not going on that seat-sale minibreak or not buying those 70%-off shoes catalyses much larger climate action. It’s the beauty of the Internet in reverse: rather than opening gateways to more knowledge, we are instead closing portals that transport us away from a fundamental truth: that we already possess everything we need.

So, in keeping with the times, find hope in inaction. Find celebration in that one search you resisted, one miniseries you refused to put on as “background noise.” Rejoice in resisting every screaming impulse to refresh your Instagram feed…even if that resistance only lasts ten minutes.

Saying No to Covideos

Video didn’t just kill the radio star; it’s now got its sight set on our Earthly star. 82% of Internet traffic comes from streaming. This is climate-costly in both the energy it demands and the fact that servers like Netflix are lagging behind in energy reporting and fossil fuel reliance. Online streaming has become our go-to to vanquish boredom, household chores, and silence, with the interminable loop of “next episodes” decimating productivity and sleep patterns. It’s estimated one billion hours of video are watched daily on YouTube, generating approximately 11.13 million tonnes of emissions a year. Perhaps, as summer unfurls, now is the time to curb our streaming enthusiasm. After all, do we really want to live in a world where Despacito’s five billion streams and downloads in 2017 – anthemic as it is – consumed as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic put together?

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