Virtual meetings reduce the environmental impacts from travel, as lockdowns have demonstrated over the past 18 months. But the Internet has an environmental impact too - and that impact is rarely measured in a comprehensive way, researchers argue in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.
Worldwide, the carbon footprint of Internet data storage and transmission adds up to 97 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, about the same as the annual carbon emissions of Sweden plus Finland, the researchers calculated.
The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7 percent of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates. It is similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally.
Most studies of the environmental impact of Internet use have only calculated carbon footprints. But Internet traffic also requires enough water to fill more than 1 million Olympic-size swimming pools annually, and gobbles up land equivalent to the combined area of three of the world’s megacities combined – Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and New York City – according to the new study.
Whilst nobody is arguing that we should be abandoning the internet, we could all do our bit to lessen its negative impact.
The major determinant of the environmental footprint of Internet activities is video, especially high-definition video. A voice-only Internet meeting has on average a 96 percent lower environmental impact than a videoconference, the researchers found. Reducing streaming video quality when you're watching Netflix or on a Zoom call reduces its environmental footprint by 86 percent.
Consumers can make small behavioral changes such as turning off video during virtual meetings, reducing video streaming quality, and taking other actions to reduce their Internet footprint such as unsubscribing from unnecessary emails. Meanwhile, government policies should aim to reduce the environmental footprint of the Internet and discourage unsustainable digital products.
Emails are, perhaps surprisingly, a big source of carbon emissions. “If each British adult would abstain from sending out a “Thank you” email, we would conserve more than 16,000 tons of CO2 per year - equal to 81,000 flights from London to Madrid. Are really all the emails we send necessary?” says Anneli Ohvril, one of Digital Cleanup Day's project leaders.