If there is one piece of positive news these days, it’s that as people travel less and industries grind to a halt, emissions have been falling and air quality improving drastically. The drop in human activity is given the planet a little break.
When we think about our personal carbon footprint, what comes to mind is taking fewer planes, eating less meat, and fighting for change in the streets. We tend not to think of all the hardware involved with how much we live and work online. But the internet is made out of very real things: cables, electricity, and power centers that all take up energy, emit carbon, and create waste.
When thinking about how your online life impacts the earth, there are a couple other places to pay attention.
What you can do
Those spam emails aren’t just an eyesore for your zero-inbox aspirations. Each email has a miniscule, but real, carbon impact. One group estimated that if every person living in France deleted just 50 emails, it would save enough electricity to light the Eiffel Tower for 42 years. Put another way, the total yearly carbon footprint of the average person living in India is approximately 1.5 tonnes CO2e. It’s estimated that the average office worker receives 121 emails per day, equal to 1,652 g CO2e or 0.6 tonnes CO2e a year. So, just three average office workers’ yearly received emails surpass that of another human’s carbon footprint for all their activity over an entire year.
It’s not just email that adds up. A sustainability expert told Fast Company last year that digital disorganization, like downloading multiples of the same file and storing identical photos, can also take a toll on the planet. When multiplied for all internet users around the world, digital clutter could have a noticeable impact.
In a recent study, researchers estimated that people streaming YouTube around the world emitted as much CO2 as a small city in 2016. The study found that a smarter website design that would stop streaming videos in the background of a user’s browser, when the user wasn’t necessarily watching the tab, could save the equivalent CO2 emissions of around 30,000 homes each year.
Being more mindful of your online habits—keeping fewer tabs open and turning off autoplay on sites like YouTube—can help erase your tiny carbon contribution and keep your head clear.
Take care of your electronics
Do you really need the latest iPhone, or does your phone just need some repairs? Manufacturing new electronics is creating a runaway train of global waste—by 2021, the world is on track to discard 60 million tons of e-waste each year. Think twice before you opt for a pricey upgrade.
Giving your electronics a daily break can also help: putting computers on the maximum energy efficiency settings and powering them down at night will reduce their energy consumption.
Take a break from the screen
At the end of the day, powering down can’t hurt. A Google spokesperson said last year that the amount of carbon it takes to provide Google services for one person each month is around the same as driving a car for one mile. Screen-free activities—journaling, going for a run—can help clear your mind and save energy.
…But don’t stress too much
It’s always good to be aware of just how much resources your lifestyle uses. Small changes like taking care of old electronics—and big changes like cutting out meat—are some ways you can make sure you’re doing your part.
But even if you swear off computers tomorrow, the future of our planet is in the hands of the politicians we elect. They alone have the power to make the big changes we really need. It’s worth using a little bit of your computer carbon budget to make sure you’re registered to vote!