(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
During the lockdown caused by the pandemic, the process of migrating to digital for work and entertainment was ramped up significantly. But turning off your video during virtual meetings is the new way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Sitting in front of a computer does not, at first glance, feel like a polluting activity. But a new study by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that an hour of video conferencing can emit up to 1kg of carbon dioxide, needs between two and 12 litres of water and requires the use of land almost the size of an iPad mini.
Turning off the video function during online meetings does not only allow one to multitask; it helps to reduce these polluting effects of technology by 96%, while streaming video in a lower definition is 86% effective.
If 70-million stream subscribers used a lower video quality, it would effectively see a reduction of about 3.5-million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
One gigabyte of data can stream one or two movies on standard definition, or music for 10 hours a month. The more an app depends on video material, the more carbon-, water- and land-hungry it is.
The emission of carbon dioxide is a result of the electricity used to process data. According to the research, Zoom records a 160cm2/hr carbon dioxide emission, needs less than 10 litres of water and consumes approximately 20cm2 of land an hour — depending on the quality of the video.
Emissions from 15 one-hour video conferencing sessions equated to the total emission needed to charge a smartphone every night for three years.
Kaveh Madani, who led the study, said people needed to be more aware of their environmental footprint. “Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint.” The internet’s carbon footprint before Covid-19 lockdowns accounted for 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Madani said, and water and land footprints have largely not been studied.
The team gathered data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US.
While global carbon emissions dropped by record levels in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Covid‑19 outbreak has forced businesses and individuals to adapt faster to a digital lifestyle, and this has meant a far greater use of digital resources.
“If this trend continues through the end of 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest of about 185 443km2 [and] the additional water needed in processing and transmission of data would be enough to fill more than 300 000 Olympic-size swimming pools, ” the study said.