When data was famously described as the new oil, it was primarily meant in terms of the economic value holed up in the data we produce. In recent times, however, it has increasingly been taken to refer to the enormous environmental toll it places on the planet.
Last year I wrote about the climate impact of our online habits, with the data centers that power many of our favorite services set to consume ever greater amounts of electricity, even as the likes of Pure Storage boast about their environmental credentials.
Reducing the impact
While there remains a degree of doubt about the true environmental impact of data centers, which doesn’t help the industry, electricity providers, or policymakers make effective decisions on the matter, what does appear indisputable is that the industry has a significant impact, and that this impact is likely to get worse as the sheer volume of data and digital services grows at an exponential rate.
With the “data is the new oil” in full flow, there has long been a sense that the imperative is to accumulate as much data as possible, even if the typical organization only uses a tiny fraction of all of the data they possess. Indeed, with the majority of data qualifying more as noise than signal, there are clear operational costs involved in accumulating endless reams of data, but there are also considerable environmental and financial costs of storing a neverending trove of data.
Nowhere was this more popularized than in Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, where he suggests that our annual email usage generates up to 40 kilograms of CO2, which equates to driving around 200 kilometers in a small petrol car.
Research from the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi questions this assertion, however, and the authors suggest that our email habits actually contribute relatively little to the carbon footprint of digital users.
The researchers examined what might happen if we not only sent a lot fewer emails than normal but also had a significant purge of our inbox, deleting all of those no longer deemed useful. They found that while this may have other benefits, it doesn’t do much to help the planet.
For instance, they highlight that the cloud storage systems used to operate our email operate around the clock, with a pretty constant base load of energy, even if the server isn’t in use. In other words, the same amount of energy is used if an email is being sent or not. For instance, we seldom turn on our computer just to send an email, and the same is true for the servers that house and power our emails.
There is also around 6 times as much spam sent each day than genuine email, with email as a whole only around 1% of all internet traffic. By contrast, video streaming accounts for over 80% of all internet traffic, with this figure almost certain to grow over the next few years.
The researchers also believe that our email habits are also fairly carbon friendly. For instance, they argue that the electricity required to store around 3,500 emails (of five MB each) produces around as much CO2 as that from driving a compact car a kilometer. As such, if we deleted 1,000 emails, its carbon benefit would amount to around five grams of CO2.
It would actually be much more carbon friendly to use our devices less often, as the researchers explain that using an average laptop for around 30 minutes, perhaps to delete 1,000 emails, would emit around 30 grams of CO2 if done using dirty fuel, and around five grams of CO2 for renewable energy.
The researchers explain that the carbon footprint of a typical email is primarily associated with the device that we compose, send, and read the emails on. The manufacture of that device is typically far more intensive than any energy used for the practicalities of email use. The usage of our devices only really becomes a factor when the electricity is generated from non-renewable sources.
So, the best way to lower our carbon footprint isn’t to stop using email but rather to buy fewer digital devices, and then to keep using those devices for as long as possible rather than replacing them when fashion changes. When we do look to upgrade, we should look for devices with low energy consumption.
So, while it may seem as though reducing the data we store in the cloud might be an easy way to reduce our carbon footprint, the evidence seems to suggest that there are much better ways of doing so. Of course, that’s not to say that cleaning up our data doesn’t have other benefits, but environmental ones are perhaps not at the top of the list.
by: Adi Gaskell
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