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What are you doing about your digital carbon footprint?

Posted: Wednesday 27 January 2021

As we are still largely confined at home as we head into this new year, some of us might be taking some consolation from the fact that our carbon footprints will be smaller our limited travel.  But before getting carried away with virtue, consider this:  pre-pandemic, data-centres (the engines of our devices) generated as much CO2 per year as the whole of the global airline industry.

‘But I don’t use data-centres’ you may be thinking.  Think again.  Data-centres are the central repository for all forms of digital content and just by reading this article you’ve interacted with one.

Tweets, texts, emails, IMs, web pages, Facebook photos, TikTok videos, Netflix series, Fortnite games, Zoom platforms – all live in and are managed from data-centres.   And data-centres are energy-hungry beasts.  Add on top the energy needed to run the infrastructure (Wifi boxes, internet exchanges and a global cable network) to move your messages, uploads and downloads around the world and the carbon footprint of our digital lives is much bigger still.

This slightly unexpected side-effect of the digital world has led researchers to some pretty shocking findings:  For example, in 2017 a rather catchy tune called Descapito took off around the globe and was downloaded 5 billion times.  One researcher calculated that the electricity used to download this catchy ear-worm was equivalent to all the electricity used by five African countries in a whole year.  All this to explain that as the pandemic has led many of us to live more of our lives online our travel carbon footprints may have shrunk but out digital ones are growing.

So, what can those of us who care about the environment do?  Firstly, be aware that every time you message, upload or download content to your devices you are generating carbon dioxide:  One or two less selfies posted to social media will be good for the environment.

Secondly, be an activist to the big tech companies:  Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Microsoft and Google operate the biggest data-centres and they are under considerable pressure to reduce the carbon emissions from these operations.  Keep the pressure up by asking your service providers to switch to renewable energy.

And thirdly, think local:  If you’re a business owner consider using a local data-centre or a local email provider for your operations.  Here in Jersey, we benefit from a high proportion of renewable electricity which means a lower carbon footprint when we work digitally locally.

But for all this, at the end of the day the CO2 generated from your digital activities is far outweighed by that resulting from heating, transport and food production.  So, put on a jumper, go for a walk in our beautiful Island and buy some local food this January.

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