Reducing Your Digital Carbon Footprint in the Wake of COVID-19

When considering the ongoing environmental crisis, various images come to mind: crowded highways, landfills or industrial worksites. And, while these matters remain crucial sustainability focal points, another is quickly rising to unprecedented levels: digital technology. 

Despite its seemingly separate existence from the physical world, digital activity has created its own unlikely carbon footprint. In fact, according to a 2019 study by the Shift Project, the world’s collective digital carbon footprint accounted for nearly 3.7 percent of all greenhouse emissions, which is comparable to aviation industry emission levels. In fact, digital technology’s energy consumption increased by almost 70 percent between 2013 and 2020. 

As the world continues to leverage digital communication in response to COVID-19, this digital emissions crisis has only worsened. What’s more, even as vaccination efforts expand, the pandemic has already created a permanent niche for remote working. This paints a grim future for our digital carbon footprint as, without action, such emissions are expected to double by 2025

To address this growing threat to the environment, behavioral and infrastructural change will be crucial in making the post-pandemic digital sector more sustainable.

How Does Digital Technology Produce Carbon?

The impact of digital emissions can only be fully understood by exploring how our devices produce emissions to begin with. Every digital action, no matter how small, contributes to data that travels through a network path to data centers and their respective servers. As this data is processed, a ventilation process takes place to stabilize the servers and related hardware. This ventilation requires a fair amount of energy — especially as data usage increases in both quantity and frequency — which creates more emissions of heat, water, electricity and various gases. 

Specifically, a 2021 Elsevier study noted that data centers account for one percent of global energy demand — “more than the national energy consumption of many countries.” This study also projected that, if current pandemic-fueled digital behaviors continue through the end of 2021, the world could see an additional 34.3 million tons in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation, while the carbon footprint of our gadgets (including the internet and their supporting systems) accounts for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions.

Which Digital Behaviors Reinforce Carbon Production?

Though digital technology is often overlooked as a primary carbon producer, its impact on global sustainability is widespread — as are its origin points. Digital activity has become a multifaceted entity, comprising everything from video streaming and online gaming, to cryptocurrency trading and digital banking. These mediums, while often beneficial and progressive in their own right, come with an environmental price. They contribute to a growing influx of data, fueling the data processing cycle and subsequent production of emissions. 

The dwindling sustainability of digital technology is a byproduct of its accessibility, versatility and general integration into our behavioral framework and social etiquette. A study by the UK’s OVO Energy highlighted the environmental impact of short, unactionable pleasantry emails (i.e., “thank you,” “have a great weekend,”). This study found that the UK could reduce its carbon output by over 16,433 tons, simply by each adult sending one less email per day.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center reports that roughly seven in ten American adults use at least one form of social media, with even the least digitally active demographic (ages 65+) recording a 31 percent increase in use since 2011. All surveyed adults reported using these outlets for a multitude of reasons, including personal communication, news consumption and media-based entertainment.

What’s the key takeaway? Digital activity is no longer a mere escape from reality; it is a part of human culture. Digital technology’s regular use has evolved into a societal expectation, despite its effect on climate change. However, the Shift Project study predicts a potential period of stability within digital energy consumption if we are able to control our digital consumption through measures like selective video use, email restraint and general limitations on screen time. 

The Impact of COVID-19

The pandemic has resulted in an increasingly remote, socially distanced landscape in which digital activity has become a necessity and, in many cases, a cultural norm. 

A 2020 McKinsey study delves into key aspects of these behavioral changes, noting that digital food- and household-related shopping habits have grown by an average of 30 percent during the pandemic — a microcosm of a global shift to “low out-of-home engagement.” Similar digital alternatives in education, healthcare and general employment are also occurring. Collectively, these changes have underscored the need for prompt digital sustainability as data usage grows worldwide.

Making Digital Behavior More Sustainable

As vaccination efforts progress and general health and safety measures become more ingrained, a post-pandemic sense of normalcy is becoming more real. That said, since many pandemic-related digital changes are likely here to stay, it is imperative that we change our digital habits accordingly, starting with a handful of common activities:

Social Media Use

Modern social media outlets are tailored to garner consistent engagement from users, which has led to their designation as a potential behavioral addiction. Though the odds may therefore be stacked against sustainable use, it can be broadly achieved with proper time management and device-related mindfulness.

A chart that provides tips to reduce the carbon footprint of your social media activity.

Tips for beginners: 

  • Set limits on your daily device use (possibly through a time-tracking journal).
  • Place your device away from your bed to reduce usage time before going to sleep.
  • Turn off your device during work, family interactions and other settings where digital activity is not necessary. 

Tips for experts: 

  • Utilize time tracking apps to set internal usage limitations on your device. 
  • Limit the number of social media tabs or apps you have open at once. If possible, keep it to one at a time. 
  • Activate browser extensions or back end app settings that block social media push notifications. 

Additional resources: 

Streaming

The pandemic has significantly increased the streaming market, with worldwide viewing time growing by 44 percent in the final quarter of 2020 alone. Like social media, streaming sustainability can be achieved through digital self-awareness and time management. 

Tips for beginners: 

  • Limit your active streaming subscriptions, canceling those that are not regularly used.
  • Monitor the amount of time spent on streaming platforms during the week (possibly calculating your time spent by platform (i.e., Spotify, Netflix). 
  • Make sure streamed content is not left to play idly as background noise or when you’re out.

Tips for experts: 

  • Optimize the quality of media content (songs, videos, etc.) where possible to make them more digitally efficient. For instance, lower a Netflix show from HD to SD, or a Spotify song from high quality to normal quality. 
  • Turn off auto-play features where possible.
  • Download music and other media content for offline use in lieu of streaming. 

Additional resources: 

Online Shopping

Online retail has been a staple of pandemic life, and digital sales hit record numbers in 2020 as a result. Since each of these transactions comes with the unseen price of digital energy use, it is imperative that we curb this dependence as brick and mortar stores become a safe, viable option again.

Tips for beginners: 

  • Create a monthly budget that minimizes online expenditures.
  • Be mindful of what you are buying online, and consider alternative shopping methods where possible.
  • Limit yourself to one shopping-based app or website. 

Tips for experts: 

  • Track your shopping apps’ back end data use. 
  • Use a timing app to monitor your time spent shopping online.
  • Modify app or site settings to block shopping-related push notifications.

Additional resources: 

Emailing

Emailing has become ingrained in modern communication but the OVO study, mentioned above, emphasizes the environmental importance of email minimalism. The following behavioral changes can be applied to all forms of emailing, making each message count in terms of sustainability. 

 A chart that provides tips to reduce the carbon footprint of your email activity.

Tips for beginners: 

  • Take steps to avoid making email your primary form of communication. 
  • Limit the total number of personal (and, if possible, professional) emails you send in a given day, keeping a record of your progress. 

Tips for experts: 

  • Actively unsubscribe from unnecessary or unwanted email lists to cut down on received messages. 
  • Compress email attachments and conversations where possible. 
  • Consider an alternative, more sustainable form of data sharing.

Additional resources: 

Cryptocurrency Trading

Cryptocurrency is a much-debated topic within digital sustainability — mostly because of its often energy-inefficient framework. To combat this issue, traders and industry leaders can subscribe to greener currency infrastructure and more sustainable user behavior. 

Tips for beginners: 

  • Support cryptocurrencies that are comparatively eco-friendly.
  • Make digital sustainability a primary focal point in your early cryptocurrency research. 
  • Stay up to date on cryptocurrency industry changes that impact sustainability. 

Tips for experts: 

  • Trade within environments that support eco-friendly blockchain systems in lieu of energy-consuming “proof of work” competition formats. 
  • Use democratic crypto communities to advocate for greener functionality. 
  • Implement a trading strategy that prioritizes sustainability. 

Additional resources: 

Online Gaming

For many, online gaming became a chance to escape the harsh realities of COVID-19. It also created an influx of data, as game servers spiked in digital activity. Gaming comes with its own unique appeal, and it can be difficult to reduce playing time in favor of digital sustainability. However, with a few key behavioral and technological changes, the process does not have to be as hard as it appears. 

Tips for beginners: 

  • If entirely new to gaming, limit your playtime to one console or medium. 
  • Disconnect gaming devices from the internet when not playing. 
  • Play multiplayer games locally in lieu of online, where possible. 

Tips for experts: 

  • Monitor mobile games’ data use and keep a record of these figures for future consideration. 
  • Audit your game software and remove games that are not being played regularly (you can always re-download them later). 
  • Activate parental controls on gaming devices to limit your child’s use.

Additional resources: 

Geolocation

Geolocation resources (such as Google Maps and Waze) have revolutionized travel, but they can use up considerable amounts of data due to lengthy trips and general overuse. Though travel has declined during the pandemic, these services will remain a crucial focal point in digital sustainability for years to come. 

Tips for users:

  • Limit the use of geolocation apps when traveling to previously visited destinations. 
  • Only use one geolocation service. 
  • Turn off mobile data when geolocation is not needed (such as during a long stretch of highway driving). 
  • Utilize offline geo-tracking options where possible. 

Additional resources: 

Conclusion

Digital sustainability is quickly rising to the forefront of environmentalism, and a solution can only be reached by building awareness and taking action. By enacting even a few of the behavioral changes above, digital users can ensure they are doing their part in reducing emissions and promoting environmental health.

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