Every single search, every streamed video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world, it's all part of our daily life by now. But it all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity, and a large digital carbon footprint too. What can we do to reduce the impact our energy-hungry online lives are having on the planet?
Everything we do on the internet, whether its with a smartphone, computer or tablet, needs electricity. And depending on where you live, that electricity probably comes from a mix of different sources, but probably mostly fossil fuels - coal, oil and natural gas - which produce carbon dioxide when burned and contributes to global warming. And then of course, there is the electricity needed to make the gadgets you were using in the first place. In 2018, digital communications even overtook the aviation industry in terms of CO2 emissions. And as more and more people get online each day, the production and use of electronic devices and digital services is growing exponentially.
In our long read Knowledge article Our Digital Carbon Footprint, we took a closer look at the facts and figures behind our digital habits to see where the challenges lie and what needs to be done by politicians and business leaders to try and minimise the impact of our digital society. Responsibility for the problem is far from being solely on the end consumer. But until governments and international institutions agree to recognise the issue and do something about it, there's actually a whole range of things that we as individuals can do.
While it may be too late to get everyone to give up their video streaming habits, there are a whole range of different things you can do to reduce your own personal digital carbon emissions.
8 Ways to Shrink Your Digital Carbon Footprint
Consume more consciously
A decision about what we want to buy is always also a decision about the world we want to live in. Was the product made under ethical conditions? Were the workers fairly paid and treated? What is the environmental impact of its production? And when it comes to the digital world, it's no different. When it comes to buying "ethical electronics" the options are fairly limited, but when it comes to smartphones the market seems to be growing. Fairphone and Shiftphone are just two manufacturers who claim to ensure humane working conditions and offer durable (and/or repairable products) free from conflict minerals.
Avoid creating electronic waste
We replace our smart devices with the next generation before they've even stopped working and we'd rather throw away our broken gadgets and buy a new one than try and repair them. If you really need a a new phone or computer, how about buying second hand from somewhere like Rebuy? If your old one is faulty rather than completely done for, check out the repair guides on Fixit to see if it can be salvaged. Or if it's something you know you won't use all that often (a fancy camera or GoPro, for example), how about saving some money and borrowing it instead for a small fee?
Correctly dispose of your old gadgets
All too often old electronic gadgets are simply mixed in with normal household waste, meaning all of the recyclable materials in it went to waste and potentially hazardous waste from entering landfill and causing soil and water contamination. Or alternatively, they end up gathering dust in a drawer. If you have electronics that have come to the end of their life, inform yourself about the best way to correctly dispose of them. Most large cities in Europe will have a recycling or pick-up service, so search around online for the correct method before ditching your devices.
Cut back on streaming - or try out alternatives
A huge amount of all of the traffic on the internet is consumed by one thing: streaming moving images. Netflix alone consumes a staggering 15% of the world's internet traffic. And music streaming has a pretty gigantic data appetite too. If cutting back completely on online video is a complete no-go, then how about downloading the movies, shows and playlists that you know you'll be watching again and again, instead of streaming them each time? And, do you really have to watch that movie in 4K on your tiny smartphone screen? Reducing the resolution of the videos you watch also massively reduces the data used to stream it and therefore also the amount of energy used.
Find alternatives to cloud computing
Do you really need to backup 25 practically identical photos by uploading them to the cloud? Every photo, video and file you save is stored there over and over again for security reasons - and that consumes energy each time time. According to a Greenpeace study, globally cloud computing consumes more electricity than all of Germany put together. The alternative? Regularly cleaning up in the cloud and deleting useless files saves energy. And: USB sticks or external hard drives are a good storage alternative - and they protect your private data from unauthorised access by others too.
Think before you search!
Enter a search query and in fractions of a second you get an almost endless list of hits. It's fast - but it also eats up a lot of power. According to Google's own figures, its data centres consumed around 5.7 terawatt hours in 2015. At that time, the annual energy consumption was roughly as high as that of the city of San Francisco - and with more and more people getting online each day, today it is probably even higher. So, take a second to think before punching something into the search bar. Make your search as exact as possible to avoid multiple searches, and avoid searching for a website and then clicking on a link when you could just put the website name in directly and avoid the extra step. Alternative search engines such as Ecosia (who plant trees) and Gexsi (who support social innovators) also offer a good alternative.
Install an ad-blocker
Advertising on the internet is usually technically pretty complex (flash animations, pop-ups, videos...), making them very data-hungry too. Ad-blockers stop adverts from appearing while you're on the internet, which makes the pages load faster and uses fewer resources too. And yet another advantage: ad-blockers help improve data security too, by stopping advertisiting companies and other third parties from automatically collecting information about you. There are lots of free ad-blockers available to download online and some web browsers even have them pre-installed.
Clean out your email inbox
Every mail that lands or is stored in your inbox requires computing power - and yes, you guessed it, electricity. You can do the same with your online inbox as you can with your analogue one: cut down on junk/spam mail, unsubscribe from newsletters you never read, and regularly clean old messages out of your inbox. You can find more tips in our article: Save the planet, clean your inbox!
Already do all this and want to take it one step further? Then you're ready for the next level!
Give your digital life a complete green overhaul
If your electricity at home comes from a green energy provider, then that's of course a great way to reduce your own personal ecological footprint. But as individual consumers our own energy use at home is only ever going to have a fraction of the impact that energy-hungry data centres will have. So you can directly magnify your positive impact by supporting digital service providers that also place importance on green energy and ethical standards - like your email provider, search engine and web hosting service. Here are just a few ideas:
Use Alternative Email Providers
Every mail that you send, receive or save contains not only text and images, but also bits and bytes. Most established providers use the electricity mix of whatever country they are based in - usually including energy from coal-burning power stations. It's better for the planet for you to send all of your emails using 100% renewable energy, and these days there are more than enough providers offering exactly that. And there's an extra bonus too: alternative providers generally protect your data and your privacy better than the industry's big-hitters. All of these providers are completely ad-free, meaning you have to pay a small fee to use them. But that also means you also never have to see annoying product personalisation ads ever again, hooray!
- The email provider Posteo gets its electricity from Greenpeace Energy, banking transactions are handled by green German banks such as GLS Bank and Umweltbank. A mail address at Posteo costs one euro per month. In return you get 2GB of ad-free mail storage and extras like a calendar and address book. Data can be secured by two-factor authentication or the entire mailbox can be encrypted.
- With Mailbox.org, for one euro per month you will also get an ad-free email box with a size of 2 GB. Besides mailbox, address book and calendar, Mailbox offers a text and spreadsheet programme. Two-way authentication and one-time passwords are supported. They get their electricity from the green electricity provider Lichtblick and their account is held at the ethically-minded Social Bank.
- Tutanota is another provider based in Germany, offering a free and open-source end-to-end encrypted email service, driven 100% by free energy. For 12 euro a year you get 1GB of space and a free calendar thrown in too, or you can upgrade and pay more for more storage and services.
- Norwegian-based Runbox prides itself on being the world's leading "hydopowered email service" - thanks to the country's natural water sources, the email servers are run on 100% renewable energy. Your emails are encrypted and protected by Norway's strict privacy legislation. Their basic account costs 15 euro a year and gives you 1GB of email storage and 100MB of file storage too.
Find sustainable phone providers
When it comes to looking to make your mobile phone use more sustainable, unfortunately in Europe the options seem to be few and far between. Ensuring you use a secondhand phone (or one that's ethically-made like a Fairphone or Shiftphone) using it for the full extent of its useful life and then recycling your old handset are ways to ensure the physical phone itself has as small an impact on the planet as possible. But what about the impact of all of the data packages you're using and the calls and texts you're making? There are just a few companies on the scene so far, with hopefully more to appear in other countries in Europe.
- In Germany, WETell aims to shake up the mobile communications market as the country's first sustainable provider, run on 100% renewable energy. Their range of mobile phone tariffs prioritise climate protection, data protection, fairness and transparency. This year we interviewed one of the founders.
- Austria-based Goood is a mobile operator with lets you do good each time you make calls and go online: 10 percent of your monthly base fee goes to a good cause of your choice. In addition, Goood invests 25 percent of its profits into social projects. In Austria, the provider has a certified CO2-neutral network.
Green Website Hosting
Once you've got your email and phone sorted, what about your website? It's been suggested that today, based on the energy consumption of the average data centre, a website with 10,000 page views a month could emit up to as much CO2 as driving a car over 5000 miles. Switching to a green web hosting provider, one that uses renewable energy and focuses on improving and optimising energy-efficiency, could make a huge difference.
We also use a green service provider to host RESET.org. Hetzner Online uses electricity from renewable sources to power the servers in their own data centre parks.
Not sure if you need to make your website more sustainable? You can check the carbon impact of your site using the online Website Carbon Calculator - as well as find tips there on how to improve it.
We could try to list the different green hosting providers here, but The Green Web Foundation has a hugely comprehensive list right here of all of the different green hosting companies in each country around the world. You're sure to be find one there that suits you and your budget.
Author: Sarah-Indra Jungblut (RESET Editorial), August 2019