Digital transformation has brought benefits in the fight against climate change, restructuring many aspects in our daily lives. However, today’s digital consumption is far from sustainable and causes more CO2 than initially thought and believed.

Our Digital Carbon Footprint is the CO2 emissions resulting from the production, use and data transfer carried out by individuals, organizations, or communities (such as digital services and infrastructures)”. As a result, the digital sector contributes to large amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

Today, technology is at the very core of our daily lives. Whether we use it from the comfort of our private homes to our usual day-to-day office jobs, digital consumption is growing by the day, contributing to our carbon footprint.

Currently, modern day society is in a state of digital overconsumption resulting in unsustainable practices, especially when taking into consideration the demand and supply for energy and materials. Moreover, with the pandemic severely limiting our freedom of movement, forcing us to stay at home, there has been a strong increase of both demand and expenditure in digital development, greatly increasing our carbon footprint.

The Growing Impact of Digital Consumption

In a 2019 study, entitled “Towards Digital Sobriety”, it was estimated that digital consumption causes roughly 3.6% of GHG emission (data gathered between 2013-2018) and is increasing every year by at least 30%. In 2021 digital consumption reached 4% with an increased estimate of 9% per year. In the first months of lockdown of 2020, internet activity grew by an astonishing 40%, ultimately demanding 42.6 million megawatt-hours of additional electricity.

Digital consumption is still quite different across the globe. The West is a major contributor with the US and Western European countries in top position using roughly 97gb and 34 gb of internet traffic per capita per month. Japan and China are also in pole position with 35 and 12 gb of internet traffic per capita per month. The digital carbon footprint of an average American is 16 times larger than that of a developing country and 5 times larger than the world average. 

Our digital assets are not being used responsibly and we are not conforming with energy efficiency and sustainability practices, often going against the treaties signed in the Paris Agreement and the environment itself. The Digital Carbon Footprint is complex and multifaceted and is influenced by anything ranging from the use of the internet and its surrounding services to the production and management of electronic devices which has been known to produce large amounts of e-waste.

It is absolutely crucial that this issue is handled both on a micro scale beginning with single individuals and companies to a macro level such as organizations and governments to adopt more efficient and sustainable ways in managing digital consumption, embracing a sober stance and raising awareness on how much of an impact the digital dimension truly has on our carbon footprint, in order to promote eco conscious technologies and a future that is green. There are many ways that you as an individual or member of a company can do to help reduce your surrounding digital carbon footprint:

1. Keeping things short and concise

Keeping content for web pages short and impactful, should be taken into account when considering your digital carbon footprint. The less you read and/or watch, the less you produce in terms of GHG emissions. The internet has revolutionized the way we access data and information, making anything virtually accessible at our fingertips. But keeping information brief, instantaneous and precise, will leave both the reader and the “content creator” less time to stay on their devices. This would effectively reduce digital consumption, ultimately lowering CO2 emissions produced by our devices but also maximizing communication efficiency.

In addition, it’s also important to consider the design of the website itself. Optimizing and adopting a sustainable web design output which takes into account factors like web optimization, ux design, server efficiency and content strategy will also help reduce the general carbon footprint of websites.

2. Minimizing energy production during company meetings

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the globe forcing companies and single individuals into lockdown, the demand for online meetings has majorly increased, both to keep companies organized and to let individuals stay in contact with their loved ones.

However, many don’t know how much emissions online calls and video conferences cause. Whether it’s a team meeting on Zoom or a quick call on Skype, online calls are a major contributor to the Digital Carbon Footprint. It is reported that video conferencing produces roughly 1kg of CO2 per session. This is especially due to webcams being switched on. A study reported by Fobes magazine, shows that by keeping webcams switched off and only using audio settings can reduce your carbon impact by 96% when video conferencing.

3. Limiting E-WASTE brought on both by hardware and software products

It’s always tempting to want the latest gadget or replace your outdated phone for a new one. However, preserving and prolonging your devices lifespan can be beneficial for the environment as it reduces the amount of e-waste produced. In a study conducted by the University of Edinburgh it was demonstrated that extending the lifetime of your computer from 4 to 6 years could avoid the equivalent of 190kg of carbon emissions.
Therefore, by avoiding the rapid turnover of our devices and choosing to prolong their total lifetime can help reduce massive amounts of e-waste. This will ultimately lead to a reduction in digital overconsumption.

E-waste is not just restricted to electronic appliances. Their cyberdimension also produces large amounts of GHG emissions yearly. Companies and individuals often resort to emailing systems for various types of activities. Emailing and communication tools should be used efficiently. Unsubscribing to unwanted and unused email distributors, regularly cleaning one’s mailing box to avoid overstoraging, compressing your data and/or moving it to a cloud system that’s more energy efficient and green are ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

4. Keeping an eco conscious mindset when optimizing your devices performance settings

mindset is something that must be considered when wanting to lower one’s carbon footprint. Adopting habits like adjusting your mobile phone’s power settings, lowering your monitor’s brightness levels, blocking autoplay when watching videos, or simply switching off (or putting into sleep mode) your devices when you’re not using them is a great step towards digital sobriety. According to the New York Times, depending on the model and battery status of laptops, when plugged in, even fully charged, a device can still absorb approximately 4.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a week, or about 235 kilowatt-hours a year[1]

Another way to reduce your digital carbon footprint is by deactivating your devices tracking geolocation. GPS systems and data tracking services ingest huge amounts of digital information and are collected and archived causing an increase in the digital carbon footprint alongside an increased risk of privacy violation.

By restricting your data tracking systems you can reduce your digital carbon footprint and keep your privacy safe and under control.

5. Switching to renewable energy sources and greener digital tools

Small renewable energy sources such as solar electric and wind power systems are becoming increasingly more accessible, affordable and tech-savvy both for companies and single consumers.
Today, you can purchase an array of small green energy appliances such as solar power bank chargers and off-grid systems to help you reduce your carbon footprint.

Switching to greener and more eco conscious digital tools can also help minimize your carbon footprint. Companies and professionals alike resort to data centers and cloud providers to help manage and carry out their tasks and activities, causing energy-intensive consumption, responsible for 5% of general digital emissions.[2]
Therefore, researching and investing in green cloud providers can help maximize energy usage and efficiency when managing data centers and reduce the general carbon footprint. 

Initiatives have already been sought out by the EU and their central data systems, by implementing “green-clouds” and green-computing systems. 
Individuals can also switch to eco conscious search engines and apps that help reduce carbon emissions.

It is only by adopting sustainable digital practices that the digital carbon footprint can be reduced, shaping a greener technology-based future. To do this, Karma Metrix continues to propose reducing the environmental impact of the websites of any company that aspires to promote a more sustainable business.

[1] The New York Times – Kust How Much Power Do Your Electronics Use When They Are ‘Off’? – 2016

[2]  December, 2021 – Green cloud computing – Economy up