Working from home has become the norm for so many of us during the various lockdowns and it’s no surprise that the environment has benefitted from the reduction in carbon emissions, with fewer workers having to drive into work.
And there have been benefits for us too. Rolling out of bed and logging on in our PJs, snuggling up on the sofa under a warm blanket with a laptop balanced on our knees, forgetting to dress from the waist down – come on, admit it, we’re all guilty of at least one. Not having to travel into the office has also brought more flexibility to our days as we take the opportunity to stick a washing on while we make a cup of coffee or raid the freezer for something tasty for lunch.
But it hasn’t all been fun and games, with many of us zoning out from Zoom-ing in. Yes, we have video-conferencing fatigue. And the truth is that, while we can feel proud of our falling carbon footprint as our car sits unused in the garage, all those Zoom and Teams meetings have been adding unnecessary – and avoidable – emissions to the atmosphere.
Research carried out by Purdue University, Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and published earlier this year in the Resources, Conservation and Recycling journal, showed that if we have our video camera on during our calls and meetings, we are using 96% more CO2 than necessary.
And using high definition (HD) not surprisingly emits more emissions than standard definition (SD). In fact, the switch to SD can cut the carbon dioxide emissions by 86%.
Of course, the CO2 levels associated with video-conferencing are a lot lower than those associated with your daily drive to and from the office, but if we genuinely want to cut our carbon footprint, there are steps we can take.
And it doesn’t just stop with your meetings on Teams or Zoom. Use of online technology in general plays a part in your carbon footprint.
Mike Berners-Lee said in his book How Bad Are Bananas? that an email is responsible for emissions ranging from 0.3g of CO2 for a spam email (even if you don’t open it) to 50g for a message with a large attachment.
Even a simple web search is responsible for 0.2g of CO2 emissions.
These figures seem tiny when compared with the emissions associated with cars where a typical new vehicle has emissions of 127.9g of CO2 per km travelled, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
But, ask yourself how many emails have you sent today? How many have your colleagues sent? That number is probably higher than it was 18 months ago when we could have actual conversations in the office. And it is also fuelled by our desire to be very British and polite, thanking someone for the email they sent to acknowledge the email you sent to them in the first place.
According to data from Statista, around 306.4 billion emails were sent and received every day last year. Now you can see those grammes of carbon dioxide starting to add up.
The to-ing and fro-ing of emails can lead to another unnecessary use of energy if someone decides to print out the email chain – yes, much as we probably hate to admit it, some of us still like to have a hard copy. How many unnecessary pages will there be for the ‘thank you’ messages you have exchanged.
And while we are on the subject of unnecessary email content, who is guilty of leaving their signature on the bottom of every email in an ongoing conversation? That’s adding more data and more CO2 to every email you send – not to mention adding reams of extra pages that might be printed out.
There are simple steps we can all take to cut the online emissions from our carbon footprint.
1. Turn your camera off on video meetings – when it’s not needed, for example when someone else is presenting or sharing their screen.
2. If the app you are using gives you the option to switch to SD from HD, do it.
3. Delete unwanted messages from your inbox – even though a lot of email technology is cloud-based, there will still be systems that are unnecessarily storing your old emails.
4. Think before you send an email. Is it necessary?
5. Try to avoid signing up for newsletters you don’t plan on reading.
6. Set up your email account so your signature is used only on the first message.
7. Try to avoid including attachments if you can send a link instead.
8. Think before you print. Is it really necessary to have a hard copy?
9. Use the sleep settings on your computer rather than screensavers that can use more energy.
When we start talking about net-zero targets, it’s not surprising that we think about the big changes we can make, cycling to work instead of driving, or switching all our lights to energy-efficient LED ones, but the smaller changes can make a difference as well.
As Mike Berners-Lee said:
“Whilst the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting out the waste in our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment.”
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