When we think of our carbon footprint, we tend to pinpoint our electricity use or daily commute, when in fact, our social media habits are also a big polluter. Here’s why internet pollution can be harmful for the environment – and how we can be more eco-friendly netizens.

By the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably sent an email, posted a photo on Instagram, or attended a Zoom meeting. Or you’ve done all of the above, if not today, then yesterday or the day before. Many internet and social media users do not think their online habits have much of an impact on the environment, but according to The Shift Project, a Paris-based climate think tank, the carbon footprint of our gadgets accounts for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, which is more than the amount produced by the aviation industry, and is set to double by 2025. What’s more: this already colossal amount is increasing as more of us are working from home and staying in more due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent Yale-led study. Here’s how using the internet is bad for the environment and what you can do to stop polluting while posting.

Counting Emissions: From a Post, to a Search, to an Email

Shifting from paper to the screen seems like a greener way to consume and create information, and indeed, this is true to a certain extent. Using the internet to read the news or find information is more sustainable than reading a paperback or printed newspaper. According to Google in 2009, one Google search emits 0.2g of carbon dioxide and it takes another 1.76g of CO2 on average to load a website – although this can go up to 10 grams depending on the website’s complexity (for instance, if it has videos). The combined 2 grams from one single search is smaller than one paperback’s 1kg of CO2, and probably will wield more current and accurate information. 

Having said that, our online presence is far from green, keeping in mind that 65.5% of the world’s population – or 4.66 billion people – have access to the internet. The carbon footprint of an email ranges from 0.3g of CO2 for spam, to 4g for a regular email, to 50g for an attachment or photo. The environmental damage caused by using Instagram isn’t much better: while posting a photo emits 0.15g of CO2, scrolling on your newsfeed for 1 minute emits 1.5g of CO2. This might not seem like much, but the average user spends 28 minutes scrolling daily – that amounts to 42g of CO2 on one social media platform every day. Most of us will also spread our time across multiple social media accounts and streaming platforms. If you’re one of the 2.85 million (and counting) users on Facebook, you produce 12g of CO2 per year; and if you’re streaming one hour’s worth of video on Netflix or YouTube, that’s another 36g of CO2 in the emissions bank. The BBC estimates that individuals are responsible for around 414kg of carbon dioxide a year, and that’s just from running our devices. For those curious about how much CO2 you might be emitting online, you can use Ecotree’s tool to get an estimate.

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Social Media and Internet Pollution

While it might seem far-fetched that every ‘like’, ‘comment’, and ‘post’ contributes to internet pollution, it comes down to a very simple reason: internet usage requires electricity, and electricity is still largely powered by the burning of fossil fuels, hence the considerable amounts of CO2 emissions. Think about the energy needed to charge a smart device and wireless networks, and more significantly, the intensive energy data centres and servers needed to support high-speed internet connection. Globally, data centres account for 200 terawatt hours of electricity use, which is around 0.8% of global electricity demand, although there have been ongoing efficiency improvements and major investments in renewable energy by major tech companies including Google and Facebook. Upgrading smartphone devices is also a source of major intern pollution. An estimated 50 million tons of electronic waste is discarded in landfills each year, where lead and toxic chemicals from discarded devices pollute the soil and contaminate water.

Minimising Internet Pollution and Online Carbon Footprint

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to minimise individual online carbon footprint. Here are five simple things you can do to be a greener digital citizen:

  1. Be a mindful email sender and receiver: Reduce the amount of pointless “thank you” emails and unsubscribe from any mailing lists that are immediately deleted. A study done by OVO energy in 2019 found that if every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email a day, it would save nearly 16,500 tonnes of CO2 a year, equivalent to 81,000 flights to Madrid. Cleanfox also found that an average email user receives 2,850 unwanted subscription emails a year, amounting to 28.5kg of CO2.
  2. Turn off video in a Zoom meeting: Online meetings are the new norm thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Though emissions from travelling have been greatly reduced due to travel restrictions, a 2012 University of New South Wales study found that a five-hour video call between people in different countries could produce up to 215kg of CO2. 
  3. Send fewer selfies: Sending an SMS text is apparently the most environmentally-friendly way of conversing as each text only emits about 0.014g of CO2. Those who opt for more carbon intensive options like WhatsApp, think twice before sending a selfie. A single selfie emits 5g of CO2 (which is more than a regular email).
  4. Steam videos over Wifi: Using a smartphone to stream videos is not only more expensive, but also at least twice as energy intensive
  5. Repair your electronics: France introduced a “right to repair” on electronic goods in March 2021, requiring washing machines, fridges, and TVs – and soon phones and laptops – to be repairable for up to 10 years. This great initiative will encourage companies to make their products more sustainable and consumers to use their products for longer, reducing electronic waste.