This is a guest post brought to you by Bond Media.
A world without paper? Theoretically, it sounds like a great idea. Sending communications and storing files in the technological ether seems like it must save precious resources. But energy is a resource, and from smartphones to cryptocurrency, the environmental impact of Internet-fueled technologies has been making the news quite frequently lately.
In 2017, following a ten-year study, Greenpeace warned that smartphones are having a devastating and unsustainable environmental impact, while the mining of cryptocurrency and maintaining of its mysterious blockchain uses as much energy as a small country by some estimates.
It sounds bad, right? All those things we thought we were doing to have a positive impact on the environment – emailing instead of faxing, ditching our bulky laptops for smaller, more efficient smartphones – could it be they are actually less beneficial than we want to believe?
Yes… and no. The truth is in the details, and the details are where we have the most power to adapt.
Though smartphones take considerable energy and resources to produce, Greenpeace’s research found it is not the phones themselves that are inherently problematic. It is the way in which we use, and more importantly, disuse our smartphones. The average lifespan of a smartphone in the U.S. is only 26 months, and, of the models Greenpeace reviewed, only two out of 13 had batteries that could be easily replaced. This, in essence, turned 11 out of 13 smartphones into throwaway products.
Studies of emailing behavior and data storage have come to similar conclusions. The manufacture and use of technological devices have some environmental impact, of course, but it is our waste and overuse of those devices that is doing the most damage.
Email vs Snail Mail
It might be the oldest question in the eco-techno debate. Is email gentler on the environment than sending communication through the physical mail? Rest assured, it is, and that difference is substantial.
According to Cornell University’s Roosevelt Institute, sending a letter with recycled paper that weighs 10 grams, well below the limit for a single, first-class stamp, emits roughly 140 grams of carbon emissions, all things included. A short email, on the other hand, releases only four grams of carbon emissions, and that’s factoring in the manufacture of the equipment used to send it.
Attaching and sending a large file with the email ups its carbon emissions to around 50 grams, still a savings of 90 grams.
But here’s where things start to get murky. If we used email the way we use physical mail, the reduction in carbon emissions would be something to cheer about. We do not, however, use email the way we use physical mail. We reply with a quick “Thanks!” we would never send if the item arrived in our physical mailboxes, we store unessential messages for years on end, and use autoresponders to let senders know a real response will soon be on the way. All of these things require energy and emit more carbon.
And those spam messages, even the ones that never get opened? According to the Roosevelt Institute research, those come at an environmental cost of 0.3 pointless carbon emissions a pop.
If storing a few emails in your inbox adds up over time, what kind of impact must storing your documents, music, and other digital files on the cloud have on the environment? As much as you might think.
A 2016 study by the U.S. government found U.S.-based data centers used 70 billion kWh of electricity in 2014, or 1.8% of the United States’ total energy consumption. They also used 626 billion liters of water, and were estimated to account for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The story here, however, may not be how much power and water it takes for data centers to run, but how much power and water it doesn’t take for data centers to run. Computer science major Joseph Jacob of Duke University estimates data centers need only half the power they use to operate at a nearly identical level to their current operations. The remainder of their power consumption is intentional excess that allows them to deliver nearly “perfect” service with no down times and faster speeds. They overconsume solely so no customer ever has to suffer dissatisfaction.
The Good News
It may sound bad, but it doesn’t have to. Email saves energy. So does cloud computing and storage. Hard to imagine after all the talk of energy-waste and carbon emissions above? Probably, but it’s true.
We already discussed the emissions saving benefit of email versus a physical letter, but sharing resources through the cloud produces an equivalent benefit. A simulation tool created by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Northwestern University, and dubbed CLEER (Cloud Energy and Emissions Research Model) estimated that if companies moved all their in-house applications, including email, spreadsheets, and customer management software to the cloud, they could reduce their computing footprints by 87 percent. Sharing space, it seems, does still prove an eco-friendlier alternative to in-house servers, and, equally important to small businesses operating on a budget, cloud services can often prove cheaper than in-house services once equipment, software, and electricity are factored in.
The even better news?
If you really want to dedicate more effort toward creating an environmentally-conscious company culture, the small changes you make accumulate just like those carbon emissions, and they don’t cost an extra dime to implement.
Don’t thank someone by email if you can walk down the hall to do it.
Don’t copy everyone in the office on a memo only a few people need to see. (A savings of 44 kilograms, or 97 pounds, of CO2 per addressee per year, according to French environmental agency Ademe.
If you don’t need it, delete it.
Seek out the cloud-based companies who get good marks from Greenpeace and equivalent environmental agencies.
As it is currently used, our Internet-based world is not really eco-friendly, but it is not unfriendly to our environment either, and, with small day-to-day choices, it has the potential to be a far greater friend than any means of communication and computing which came before it.
Shawna Newman is digital marketing consultant with an emphasis on site-building and SEO. She has sold several successful web-based businesses, and owns and operates Skipblast Digital. She provides this post on behalf of London web designers Bond Media.