Reducing your carbon footprint online

Photo by Ana Marta Dias

When most of us think about our online activity, we don’t tend to imagine it having a tangible environmental impact. After all, we might imagine the internet as a non-physical entity, like something in the cloud, right? 

In reality, everything we do online has a carbon footprint and it comes from two main sources. 

  1. The devices you use.
    Whether that’s a laptop, a desktop, a smartphone, or a tablet- we use energy and resources to manufacture and ship them, and of course- electricity to power them.
  1. Powering the internet.
    Physical servers are needed to power the internet which rely on under-sea cables, switches and data centres. These are powered by things like petroleum, natural gas, and coal i.e. burning fossil fuels which, as we know, emits CO2.

So what is the carbon footprint of the internet? 

About half the world’s population (4.9 billion people) use the internet and it’s currently responsible for roughly 3.7% of the global carbon emissions. That might not sound like a lot but that’s about 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases being emitted every year. In comparison, the aviation industry is currently responsible for 2.5% of the global carbon emissions. Quite rightly, environmental movements often heavily focus on encouraging greener travel habits, but why don’t we encourage greener online habits?

Here’s what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint online:

Clean up your email habits

Sending one short email, with no attachments emits 1g of carbon, which is about the weight of a paperclip. When you add medium to larger attachments to those emails, the emission can go up to 50g of CO2. 

It’s estimated that the average office worker receives 121 emails per day, and that the average person in Britain sends 64 unnecessary emails a day (e.g. emails just to say ‘thanks’ or ‘no problem’). According to Carbon Literacy, over the course of a year it then takes the received emails of just 3 office workers to equal the total yearly amount of carbon emitted by one person living in India. Suddenly they don’t seem so insignificant now!

So, to clean up your email habits:

  • Send fewer emails. Read through a draft first to ensure it has all the necessary information so that you won’t need to follow up with another.
  • Send links to drive documents or information online rather than large attachments. Only 6% of email attachments are opened so a drive link will cut down massively on the energy consumed when opening it.
  • Unsubscribe from spam emails that you usually delete without reading.
  • Compress images so that you send them with lower resolutions.

Download instead of stream

Downloading a song, film or TV show is marginally greener than streaming it as you’re only accessing that piece of information from that server once, as opposed to continuously. Streaming has a bad reputation of being largely environmentally harmful, but it’s important to have perspective. An hour of watching something on Netflix emits about 64g of carbon, whereas an hour long bus ride emits 150g of carbon and driving a car a mile emits 710g.  

Opt for a more environmentally friendly UX design

A good rule of thumb to operate by here is that the more energy required to power your website, the less environmentally friendly it is. If your webpage is host to a lot of graphics or videos, that will require a substantial amount of power. Similarly, if the colourway of your website is light, bright colours, that will use more energy than a darker UX design.

Some other considerations: 

  • Green web hosting – Hosting your website on servers that are run by 100% renewable energy is one of the most efficient things a business can do to be more environmentally friendly. Some of the top eco-friendly website hosts for 2022 are: GreenGeeks, Green Hosting, Kualo.

  • WPO (web performance optimisation)- Does your webpage load quickly? Is your UX design user-friendly or do people struggle to find the information they’re looking for? It’s great practice in general to keep things clear and simple as the average user will spend just 7 seconds looking for their desired information before abandoning their search.

    Not to mention it’s incredibly important to champion accessibility to ensure there are no avoidable barriers in the way for people with physical or learning disabilities. For example, provide transcripts for audio and subtitles for video so that everyone can access the information. Another quick change you can make is to add clear, descriptive alt text for images so that people who use screen readers know what images are featured.

  •  SEO/ findability – The more you invest in strong SEO, the quicker users can find your content online and the less energy is used trying to get there.

  • Sustainable business practices and company ethos – Establish your business’s ethos and plans for sustainability. From here, you can cultivate the projects you take to ensure that your clients align with your goals for a greener future. A tangible way to do this is for you and your clients to practice Corporate Digital responsibility which are a set of practices designed to guarantee organisations are using data and digital technology in an ethical and environmentally friendly way.

To get a free estimate of your website’s current carbon footprint, check out the Website Carbon Calculator.

Unplug and avoid vampire energy

When electronics are left plugged in, they continue to drain energy. The biggest  contributors of this are desktops, laptops and TVs. Although the devices might be switched off or in sleep mode, they’re just awaiting the signal to turn back on. A study conducted in 2020 showed that on average, Brits spend £68 a year on vampire energy which makes up 6% of their yearly energy bill.

Watch out for leaving Youtube running in the background. Many people (myself included) like to have a bit of background noise whilst they work, but it might be time to engage a little more mindfully with this habit. YouTube is one of the biggest internet activities to contribute to the global emission of CO2. A billion hours of YouTube are watched daily, which emits 6 billion grams of CO2; roughly the equivalent of driving to the moon 62 times.

So unless it’s something you’re actively engaging with, it would be greener to stream or download audio through an audio-only platform like Spotify or Audible. However, if you are watching YouTube, by dimming your device from 100% brightness to 70% you could save up to 20% of the energy it requires.

Image by Noah Buscher

Although there are always ways to reduce your carbon footprint, as mentioned above, it’s important to keep perspective. The monster share of damage being done to our planet is being done by a handful of very large, very powerful conglomerates. Whilst we should all be working towards harm reduction in our own lives/businesses, it’s also important to make sure the main culprits causing harm to our planet are held accountable for their actions and take an active role in reversing the damage.

One of the most helpful things we can all do for the planet is to think bigger than just the small actions we take on an individual level and work together to find regenerative solutions as well as challenge the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. 

Image by Katt Yukawa

We’d like to signpost you to some great organisations mobilising for climate justice that you can support today:

Choose Earth – a campaign driven by Brazilian indigenous leaders fighting for the future of our planet. You can donate now to fund resourcing the leaders fighting for the future of our planet. Whilst Indigenous communities are only 5% of the world’s population, they protect 80% of global biodiversity.

“The global community needs to relearn how to hold a caring relationship with nature, by deeply listening to those who are the protectors of the last wild spaces left on Earth. Using innovative storytelling, resource distribution, and the exchange of knowledge, Choose Earth aims to challenge perceptions and amplify indigenous wisdom in the curation of global environmental solutions.” – Choose Earth

Earth Art Studio – an arts movement created by artists to encourage and educate people from all walks of life in incorporating climate design practices directly into land management and nature preservation as a means of impacting climate change. 

Our Kids Climate – 58 groups of parents in 23 countries, mobilising to protect their children from the fallout of climate change. They head fellowships and movements but also create free resources on how to approach the topic of climate change with your children. 

Earth Island Journal – this is a publication that we highly recommend that you subscribe to. The Earth Island Institute supports environmental activists and leaders working to protect the biological and cultural diversity that sustains our environment. Through investigative journalism and contemporary issues they also offer crucial insight into how racial/white supremacy caused the climate crisis. 

Global Giving – a fantastic website that acts as a go-between, connecting nonprofits, donors and companies to each other. They have a section of their website dedicated to climate action projects too so you can find a cause that resonates most with you.

If you have any other suggestions on how to stay green online or organisations to support, we’d love to hear them! Let us know!



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