Dirty Data: Your Virtual Carbon Footprint

Even though you recycle, telecommute so you don’t use your car to drive to work, and try to be conscientious when it comes to your carbon footprint—you might be leaving a bigger mark than you think. Surfing the Internet, sending an email, and even liking a post on Facebook all contribute to your virtual carbon footprint.

While computers and the Internet certainly help reduce waste and paper usage, all the electricity required to run search engines, store data, and stay connected makes an impact. Your virtual carbon footprint is the sum of all the CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that are produced every time you hit send or post a tweet.

Virtual Carbon Footprint by the Numbers

The Internet uses approximately 1/10 of the world’s total electricity, which definitely contributes to the carbon footprint. And streaming services like Netflix make up about two percent of worldwide emissions.

But all hope is not lost. A recent “Mother Nature Network” article reported that Google engineers estimate that the average search generates about .02 grams of CO2. That means it would take 10,000 Google searches to equal the emissions created by traveling five miles in your car. So you are making a difference by working from home—it’s just not completely free of environmental impact.

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And when you consider that all the posting, liking, and messaging you do on Facebook in a year produces the same emissions as ordering your morning latte, it’s obvious that online emissions are typically smaller than those produced by other activities like driving a car or even mailing a letter.

If you added up all the electricity used by data centers and networks that connect to our phones, computers, laptops, and even everyday items like home security systems, the U.S. ranks sixth among all countries.

And with the unending push to offer more connections to more things, from virtually anywhere, the output is only going to increase. It might not be a huge problem today, but if the virtual footprint goes unchecked, the results could undo much of the progress already made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What You Can Do About It

The good news is that we can make a difference. Giants like Apple and Facebook have already made impressive reductions by switching to clean energy. From solar farms to channeling wind power, both companies successfully cut their ties with using coal and other fossil fuels.

For those of us without the ability to run our computer or smartphone via solar power, there are other things we can do to make a difference. Here are three easy ones.

  1. Power Down the Computer. Start simple by not leaving your computer running when you aren’t using it. Just as we’ve learned to turn off the lights when we leave the room, turning off your computer and shutting down programs that run constantly in the background are easy ways to minimize your energy consumption.
  2. Only Email Necessary Recipients. Stop using “Reply All.” Each email that’s sent produces emissions, so make sure you only send emails to people who really need to be included—those who don’t need that email will thank you too.
  3. Improve How You Run Apps. Shut down apps on your smartphone or tablet when you’re finished using them. Check your settings to make sure apps aren’t running in the background, and stop push notifications that automatically alert you every time someone posts a photo on Facebook.
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These may seem like small steps, but collectively they can add up to significant reductions in carbon emissions. You already make a difference with the environment by limiting driving and recycling, now it’s time to add the same diligence to your online activities.