Bytes of pollution: the carbon footprint in the digital age

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Bytes of pollution: the carbon footprint in the digital age

When I read about climate change, I often think of pollution from large factories with towering chimneys, smog from exhaust pipes, and the broader impact of fossil fuels.

While these are among the most discussed contributors, they are not the only ones. I believe that almost everything can be improved to reduce its environmental impact.

Due to the work I do and the passions I have, I can't help thinking about the impact of the digital world on this area.

Not mainstream

It's hard to see the pollution made by a website, an app, a chat, how they could compete with an exhaust pipes into our minds? Their contribution to pollution is invisibile, or not mainstream, yet.

When I need to go from point A to point B, I consider whether to drive or walk. When I need something, I think about whether I already have something I can use instead of buying new.

I'm not perfect; I use my car for short trips and desire new, shiny things. The key is being aware that I have choices, and that these choices have a carbon footprint. Until recently, I didn't think about this when sending a large video in a chat, browsing a website, or using an app.

When I do these activities, I send and receive data. Both my device and the remote server use energy to complete tasks, maintain connections, and process data. We need to apply mindful choices to our digital actions as well.

Sustainable Web Manifesto states that "if the Internet was a country, it would be the 4th largest polluter." I touched on this topic in another post, but this idea continues to resonate with me, and I feel there's more to understand. What actions can we take to address this issue?

We need to design digital products with a low carbon footprint, and this responsibility doesn't solely rest on Big Tech. During my web browsing, I came across the green SEO Manifesto along with the well-known Sustainable Web Manifesto.

These are just a few of the movements focused on sustainability in the digital world. The topic is getting more attention. Articles like this one from Search Engine Land have good ideas for the SEO community. They help raise awareness.

There will be thousands of associations, movements and projects aimed at reducing the environmental impact of digital, the ones I have listed are those that I find most often within my social bubble

Greener digital products

Online there are digital carbon footprint calculators like (tried some of them):

  1. https://ecograder.com/
  2. https://www.websitecarbon.com/
  3. https://greenpixie.com/
  4. https://digitalbeacon.co/
  5. https://ecoping.earth/

but also API services helpful for calculating digital carbon footprint in different area like (never tried):

  1. https://www.climatiq.io/
  2. https://cloud.google.com/carbon-footprint
  3. https://www.searates.com/integrations/api-carbon-emissions-calculator
  4. https://www.tapix.io/product-and-services/carbon-footprint-insights
  5. https://www.carbonfuture.earth/products/api

One of the best and most famous SEO spider, Screaming frog, just released a new version that calculates carbon footprint while scraping your website, using CO2.js library, a sign that this topic matters for the seo community, another sign of awareness.

These are useful tools, but they can return anomalous data, it is better to always put your mind to it. The point here is not how good they are at calculating your score, but that more and more people will be encouraged to think about the carbon footprint of their products.

Greener digital choices

It's not just a matter of how a digital product is built, is also how we use those products. Small actions for a user, replicated for millions of people, could have a significant impact:

  1. I've subscribed to many newsletters, but I don't read them all regularly. Sometimes I delay unsubscribing for no clear reason. If a newsletter isn't valuable to me or I don't have time to read it, I should admit I don't need it. This would help reduce the number of emails sent by the server.
  2. Smartphones are life companions, we all have many apps installed, 35 based on this, or 18 on this, I must admit that I thought more. Sometimes they get and send content from/to the internet, for example for ads. I prefer choosing apps without network permission, if I can, or I prefer paying for an app. Paying is a way to hold up a developer, but it often helps removing ads. I'm not against ads. I work in digital marketing and believe advertising isn't bad (this topic deserves more discussion). However, paying to remove ads from an app can reduce network data transfers and give you more influence as a customer.
  3. Family chat, friends chat, work chat, messaging in general, we send lots of pictures and videos. Sometimes I send something into a chat and after a while I receive it back from another chat. Sharing content is so easy, that perhaps we don't see the consequences. Data centers use compression to reduce file sizes, which is beneficial. However, asking yourself if it's necessary to send certain content can be even more effective. Disabling automatic media downloads can also help saving space and reducing data transfer.
  4. Social media platforms are great for networking, improving businesses, and having fun, but we should be aware that their news feeds have a CO2 emission impact. This analysis from greenspector gives you an idea (spoiler, TikTok). It's up to us deciding how to use them.
  5. Streaming platforms: this is controversial for me. I am not yet a heavy streaming user, but I could became one, and I can't see real alternatives right now. I can lower the resolution, but what else? Companies can improve the compression algorithms and cut the co2 emissions using green energy as much as possible, and maybe I can ask for it. In 2021 Netlix CO2 emissions has been of 1.5 million metric ton (more than half of that footprint from the physical production of the shows and films you watch on Netflix), but they seem aware of it, in fact they say “we'll cut our emissions in half by 2030 according to our validated science-based target. And as of 2022, we annually bring our remaining net carbon footprint to zero by investing in the power of nature to capture carbon. “
  6. Cloud storage platforms are convenient, but their business models encourage us not to think about disk usage. We shouldn't take storage space for granted just because we use a cloud service. If we don't need a file, we should delete it. Disabling automatic cloud backups and choosing to save only necessary files can help too. While using cloud services, I found many duplicate files and similar pictures in different folders. I realized I can manage my storage better. It feels like cleaning up after making a mess, so why not try to make less of a mess in the first place?

These are just some thoughts and small steps I'm trying to adopt to change my behaviours, but many more actions are possible.

Other sources may cover and will cover the topic better. I found this article from UNICEF or this one from the World Economic Forum, but you can find more and more by searching for them.

We can work on it, we can do our part, it's a matter of choice.

Thank you for passing and for your time. If this topic is dear to you and you would like to talk about it, get in touch with me, I will be happy to hear from you.

Here I save my thoughts and reflections on mainly digital topics. They derive from what I read, watch and listen to, which I try to reorganise.

Digital citizen, remote worker, digital analyst, this space is my single source of truth.
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