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Limiting the carbon footprint of our everyday online habits

Whether it’s work or leisure, avoiding the internet is impossible. Sending emails, streaming videos, and browsing the web generates a larger carbon footprint than you may think.

What’s the harm in playing Club Penguin for an hour, streaming a 2-hour Joe Rogan podcast, or sending the folks a charming e-card?

It’s definitely worse than you’d think. Perhaps it’s because the internet plays such a huge part in both our work routines and downtime, but you rarely hear conversations about the sizable carbon footprint our online habits have when totted up.

Even the ‘wokest’ among us aren’t losing much sleep over the few grams of carbon our Google searches account for, or the energy required to power our devices. They’re essentials, after all.

It’s when you consider that 53.6% of the global population is now online – that’s around 4.1 billion people – that you begin to understand how each of our little indiscretions can lead to a wider issue.

Recent reports state that the carbon footprint from our gadgets, the internet, and the systems supporting them likely account for 3.7% of all global emissions. Almost identical to that emitted by the airline industry, experts have estimated our internet toll of 1.7 billion tons will double by 2025.

How is this possible then whilst leaders like Joe Biden are pushing renewable energy and centralised data centres? Like most environmental issues, it comes down to technology and infrastructure disparities between wealthy and developing nations.

In the US, internet data centres now make up just 2% of electricity usage. A lack of investment in developing regions has led to a continued reliance on fossil fuels to power their services. Many of these providers instead turn to carbon offsetting to reduce their own impact, controversial as the topic remains in sustainable circles.

The three biggest Cloud corporates, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, have pledged to fully decarbonise their data in the coming years, though none have yet ditched the use of fossil fuels entirely.

While that transition is underway, it’s worth knowing which online habits are the most energy demanding and understanding which behaviours are the biggest offenders.

Which online behaviours lead to the most carbon?

Unsurprisingly, watching videos accounts for the biggest chunk of the world’s internet traffic at 300m tons of carbon dioxide every year. Guess where I discovered that neat fact? YouTube.

The video giant makes up around a third of this sum, equalled by the on-demand subscriptions we all binge such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Disney Plus.

At the summit of the streaming traffic stats is pornography, which astoundingly generates as much carbon dioxide as the whole of Belgium in a year. Knock it on the head people… for the sake of the planet.

Paling in comparison, (but still problematic) is the downloading and streaming of music. To date, in the US alone around 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide have been amassed by our everyday listening habits.

For context, 2017 hit song ‘Despacito’ – with its 5 billion plays – consumed 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide. That’s more electricity than was used by Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic put together that year.

That’s a heavy price to pay, even for a chorus that bangs that much.

You’ve probably recognised a pattern here, and it also applies to gaming. Any media downloads in large quantities or hefty size require lots of energy to complete, and with current gen games regularly needing updates in the excess of 50GBs, the industry has registered a whopping 24 megatons of carbon dioxide.

What can I do to lower my carbon footprint?

If you’re starting to feel a twinge of guilt about your countless Spotify playlists or a Black Friday PS5, there are a number of things you can do to limit your own energy consumption.

Beyond the obvious solution of downloading less day-to-day, you can disable several background processes and features on your social media sites and phones right now. In terms of impact, however, its worth mentioning that our annual footprints on apps like Facebook typically equate to that of boiling a kettle just once.

‘We’ve found that app updates and automatic cloud backups are about 10% of traffic from mobile phones,’ says Uppsala University’s digital expert Mike Hazas. ‘So, switching off unnecessary cloud backups and switching off automatic downloads for app updates are good things to do.’

If all of us were to scale back our incessant listening and viewing habits, we could create a dent in our energy emissions, but orchestrating a movement on that scale is close to impossible.

Personal changes are worth making, but will only get us so far. Looking at the big picture, our own energy (lame pun intended) would be best placed in ensuring these internet service providers follow through with promises to axe fossil fuels for good.

‘It’s most important to make sure the companies building the internet are switching to renewable and phasing out fossil fuels,’ says Greenpeace’s Elizabeth Jardim.

‘That’s when searching will be more guilt free.’