Digital Carbon Footprints

Hello everyone! If you’ve stuck with my blog for a while, you’ll remember my post about carbon footprints, but did you know that digital carbon footprints exist? That’s right, today, we’ll be looking at what a digital carbon footprint is, why it matters, how you can calculate yours, and what you can do to reduce it.

What is a digital carbon footprint?

If you’re anything like the average human being these days, you likely spend a lot of time on a device of some sort, whether it be for work, school, entertainment, or anything in between. Logically, any use of a device relies on electricity, which is primarily powered by fossil fuels, and thus the more device usage, the more electricity needed, and the more fossil fuels burned. 

But it’s not just device usage that consumes fossil fuels. Any product needs to be produced, and device production, including the mining, transporting, and assembling processes, is especially fuel-intensive. And not only does the production of devices use up fossil fuels, but so does their disposal as well, the levels of which are recently rising. 

To make matters worse, all of the storage your devices use aren’t just on the cloud, they actually take up physical space in facilities known as data centers or server farms. For Google accounts specifically, each account created gets its own physical data container, but these buildings in general store massive amounts of data and as such, require even more electricity to run on and maintain. These farms account for 2% of the global electricity demand, and while this may not seem like much, this amount is actually very similar to that of the entire aviation industry. I mean, I did say global. And what’s more, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2040, 14% of global emissions are set to come from digital data storage, a quantity equal to that of the U.S. alone, despite efforts to maximize energy efficiency.

So essentially, your digital carbon footprint is similar to a carbon footprint, but it’s digital – that is, it is the total amount of carbon released by the manufacturing, maintenance, and usage of all of your devices (you can’t control the former 2 but you definitely can control usage – we’ll get to that in a second.)

Why should I care about my digital carbon footprint?

Digital carbon footprints are culprits of many of the familiar issues we face. Most notably, because the digital world runs on electricity, which is powered by fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases (I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this), it contributes to global warming. And I’m sure, or at least I would hope that we all know the effects of that by now. (If you don’t, check out my post about global warming.) Hopefully anything that contributes to global warming has been registered in your brain as a bad thing by now!

Similar to other products that release greenhouse gases, our devices are produced out of and maintained by other products that are made of unsustainable and non-renewable resources. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, check out my blog posts about sustainability and renewable resources.) As such, these processes are not beneficial to us or the planet in the long-term.

How can we reduce our digital carbon footprint?

There are actually countless easy-to-implement ways to minimize your digital footprint, some of which I never knew about! Some of the easiest ones to do are the most obvious. For example, if you think you’re not going to come back to a device for more than 2 hours, power it down, since idle devices still use up power. You can also try being more mindful of your charging habits – try not to charge your device for longer than you think it needs. For all of you overnight chargers out there, I understand your complaints, but a handy solution for this is to charge your phone for an hour or two before you go to bed, keep it on low-power mode throughout the night, and then finish charging (if needed) as you get ready. You don’t need to constantly check your feed in the morning – looking at your phone as soon as you wake up has been shown to affect your mood.

Ok, I know you’re going to hate me for this, but you don’t have to buy the new iPhone, Mac, or whatever it is you buy. I’m sure the devices you have right now work just fine. Besides, constantly buying is not only bad for your carbon footprint if you just throw your old things out, but likely for your wallet as well. Make sure to take good care of your existing devices, avoiding things that can damage them (like overnight charging!), especially since most items these days are designed to work poorer than normal to encourage constant buying. Some companies like iFixit have kits to help repair your devices, and even Apple is planning on releasing one as well, but there’s always your local AT&T / repair store too! If you do plan on buying when your old items truly can’t work anymore or don’t work for you anymore, consider donating them to someone who can still make use, giving them to shops that refurbish them, or properly disposing of them.

Now we’re going to get into some usage habits you can alter for a minimized footprint. First, let’s look at emails, and I know what you’re thinking, emails? Well in actuality, despite their overall eco-friendliness, emails actually contribute to your footprint. For example, the emails in your inbox take up space in data centers, which as aforementioned take energy to cool and maintain. Therefore, it’s a good habit to thoroughly clean out your inbox to make sure that only the emails, and thus the data, you really need are with you. It helps to be organized! (Speaking of which, this cleaning out can apply to your photos and other files too! Compressing files can help to free up storage as well.) Sending emails emits an average of 4g of carbon dioxide, and the longer ones can take up to 50, so make sure to go through the mailing lists you’re subscribed to and remove any you’re not interested in anymore so that less emails are sent! When receiving group emails that you need to respond to, try to only reply to the people who need to see your message to further minimize email sending.

When it comes to videos and music, yes, I know, kids my age these days are really into streaming, but the way we typically do it is simply not beneficial to the environment at all. To make your streaming more eco-friendly, try turning auto-play off so you’re only watching and listening to exactly what you want. As for music specifically, you can download it and listen offline to reduce your emissions. You can do this with Spotify Premium, which I have, and switch your settings to offline, but I’m sure there are other free ways to download music out there!

When it comes to general device habits, one major thing to keep account of is your screen time, the main contributor to your footprint. You can try to set screen time limits for yourself – I know Apple products have them, but usually self-set limits don’t work out, so you can have a parent or spouse set them and control them from their own phones. Even if you don’t set screen time limits, be conscious of how much web surfing you do! You can also keep your phone and other devices on their equivalent of a low power mode – on iPhones, this saves battery, reduces brightness, and turns auto-lock (the time it takes for the display to turn off after the phone detects you’re not looking at it) to 30 seconds, all of which prolong phone life, maximize usage, and minimize emissions. If you don’t have a low power mode, try reducing your brightness. It doesn’t have to be much, as just a 30% reduction leads to 40% less energy used!

Another general habit you can do is minimize the amount of searches you do, as this requires processing power and thus more energy. If you find yourself going to a particular website often, bookmark it! This allows you to go straight to the website with one click, no searching needed! But if you visit a particular website enough, it should actually show up in the search bar drop down or the link should automatically fill in for you on Google Chrome, additionally reducing searches! It’s very handy, especially when you have to get to a certain page by clicking others.

Now comes the more hard to implement, but certainly not impossible, strategies. I’m not sure if this applies to all providers, but with Google, each account has its own server in one of the farms, so make sure you only have exactly the number of accounts you need to avoid taking up extra space, and if you run out of room, you can either compress your files or simply buy more! When choosing a device, keep your provider in mind – make sure to choose one that is dedicated to sustainable practices and using renewable energy, like Apple or Google! And on the non laptop, phone, tablet, etc. note, try to avoid buying those smart appliances like fridges or ovens – you don’t need the fancy display, and a regular one uses much less energy! Look out for Energy Star certified appliances, which are shown to use less energy, and last but not least, look for renewable ways to power your home, like solar power, which is becoming more affordable these days!

Well, that’s all for today. Hopefully you’ll have picked up one or a few eco-friendly habits, and become more aware of the unseen effects your digital usage has. See you all next time!

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