Why lockdown life has sent our digital carbon footprint spiralling

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By Dr Caroline Moraes, Dr Solon Magrizos & Dr Grigorios Lamprinakos
Birmingham Business School

Life under COVID-19 restrictions has seen the pattern of our lives change enormously – no more so than in our growing dependency on the internet. UK adults now spend a record four hours a day online on average. Demands on the UK’s digital infrastructure were so high during the peak of the pandemic, after many people were forced to work from home, that streaming giants like Netflix and YouTube limited their services to prevent a network crash.

But what most people aren’t aware of is the environmental damage caused by our online activity. Every photo posted on Facebook, every file uploaded to the ‘cloud’ and every Prime video watched has a carbon footprint. Researchers estimate that even a typical email has a carbon footprint of about 4g of CO2 emissions, while one with a large attachment might be responsible for ten times that.

That’s because all our online activities require electricity that may or may not have been generated sustainably, and put further demands on environmentally damaging infrastructure, such as satellites, submarine cables, antennas and data centres that all consume enormous resources. In 2014, data centres in the US were estimated to consume a staggering 100 billion litres of water each year for cooling hardware and emitted as much CO2 as the aviation industry.

So what can we do to help curb the spiralling impacts of our online lives? While much research and consumer awareness-raising in this area has tended to concentrate on the sustainable design, production and disposal of electronic hardware, few studies have focused on the sustainability of the online activity to which it gives access.

We know that streaming data through a laptop consumes considerably less energy than through a games console, and using power-saving modes on computers can reduce consumption by 7%. We also know that always-on devices and unlimited mobile data plans are encouraging people to spend more time online, increasing their carbon footprint. What is harder to understand is the broader drivers behind people’s online activities and how better awareness of the environmental impacts of these activities’ may affect our day to day online behaviour.

With the number of internet users set to almost double to 7.5 billion by 2030, even without the prospect of any future pandemics, the need to get a grip on our burgeoning online carbon emissions is becoming ever more urgent if the world is to meet its net-zero carbon goal. We hope our new research (detailed below) will play a vital role in helping to achieve it.

The Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business is undertaking new research to find out more. The study will look at the emotional, cognitive and habitudinal reasons people engage in online activities. The aim is to uncover not only how people’s complex relationships with their electronic devices and the more hidden digital infrastructure inform their online behaviours, but also whether adapting the perceptual environment around using the internet can influence more pro-sustainable attitudes and digital behaviours.

We’re looking to interview at least 30 people about their online practices for the study (please email us if you’re interested in taking part), as well as numerous experts on sustainability and digital carbon footprints. With what we learn, we hope to create a free guide, workshops and webinars encouraging greater online carbon literacy. Eventually, we’d like to have an app that tracks and calculates users’ online carbon emissions, offering tips on how to minimise their footprint.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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