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12 Easy Ways to Minimize Your Digital Carbon Footprint

As we continue to have conversations about how to minimize our global carbon emissions by transitioning from energy sources like coal to cleaner, renewable sources like wind and solar, it’s tempting to think that the sole solution to our problems is switching where we get our energy. While that is a crucial component, it also begs the question, what can we be doing to use less energy in the meantime while most of our energy still comes from coal? And how can we develop better habits so we need less energy in general?

One area of opportunity that often goes overlooked is the energy associated with our digital presence. It’s easy to forget that every link tapped or clicked, question searched, file streamed, email or photo saved relies upon messages sent to servers, stored in data centers, and of course, handled on devices that all need massive amounts of energy to function as seamlessly as we like them to.

Researchers have forecasted that Information & Communications Technology could create 3.5% of global emissions by 2020, surpassing aviation and shipping, and growing to up to 14% by 2040. Just a single Google search results in an estimated .2 to 7 grams of CO2 emissions! (Source: climatecare.org

Apologies for the major buzzkill, BUT we also know that there’s some silver lining to learning that our actions have an impact. (See where we’re going with this?) Our actions have an impact! Here are 12 ways you can minimize your digital carbon footprint TODAY!

  1. Turn off your devices any time you won’t be using them for 2 hours or more. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends this because devices still use up energy even when they’re on sleep mode.
  2. Clean out your inbox regularly. Delete/archive emails you won’t need again, including calendar invites, receipts, promotional messages, documents that were shared with you, anything you can access elsewhere, or you know, most of your emails. All of those emails sitting in your inbox are being stored in data centers, which use a lot of energy to power and keep cool.
  3. Don’t leave your devices plugged in for longer than they need to charge. (That means you overnight chargers!) Your phone won’t overcharge, but every time it naturally dips below 100%, your charger will kick back into gear, and keeping your phone at full capacity charges will gradually degrade your battery (Source: Time). And it also continues to use energy unnecessarily. If you like a fully charged phone when you wake up in the morning, charge it before bed, keep it on Airplane Mode or Do Not Disturb overnight, and plug it back in while you get ready in the morning.
  4. Turn off AutoPlay. Video streaming is one of the biggest culprits of energy consumption and data growth, with Netflix and YouTube representing 50% of all Internet traffic at peak times in North America (Source: Climate Care). Minimize unnecessary energy use by avoiding streaming videos you’re not actually watching.
  5. Try not to rely on navigation when possible. We all know that using navigation to get from point A to point B uses up data, and while it’s often super helpful for clear directions to a new place, many of us also lean on it heavily for places we’ve been before. Challenging yourself to remember directions isn’t just a great way to reduce your energy consumption, it’s also a bonus for your brain health! A neuroscience study at McGill University showed that non-GPS users have more gray matter in their brain and higher functionality in their hippocampuses than GPS users. 
  6. Unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t read or aren’t interested in. The average email uses 4 grams of CO2, and an email with long attachments can use up to 50 g of CO2, which is a lot of energy for something you’re not going to read anyway (Source: Climate Care).
  7. Don’t reply all unless necessary. That same principle can be applied when you’re sending messages. Consider whether all of the recipients really need the information before sharing it to all.
  8. Save bookmarks for websites you frequently go to instead of searching for them in your search engine each time. Every time you search Twitter instead of going directly to Twitter.com, you’re using extra energy. According to Mozilla, “Using search rather than simply going to the site sends the information from your browser to the search engine servers for data processing before returning a list of search results to your browser.”
  9. Move to the cloud and choose a cloud provider that uses renewable energy. Storing your valuable files on the cloud is a great way to save energy, especially if you have a business that requires a lot of storage. Choose a cloud provider like Apple, Google, Box, Rackspace, Facebook, Salesforce who have all committed to a goal of powering their data centers with 100% renewable energy (Source: Climate Care).
  10. Purge your inbox, photo albums, documents, and other files regularly. Delete/archive emails you won’t need again, including calendar invites, receipts, promotional messages, documents that were shared with you, anything you can access elsewhere, or you know, most of your emails. “A study by ICF International and McAfee reveals that storing 1GB of e-mail consumes 32.1 kWh per year. According to Orange, if every single person in France deleted 50 emails, the energy savings would be equivalent to turning the Eiffel tower’s lights off for 42 years, or to New York City not consuming any electricity for 4 hours.” - Reset.org
  11. Download audio files instead of streaming them, or listen to CDs or the radio when you’re in the car. While the advent of music streaming has dramatically cut down on the amount of plastic used to make physical albums, it has also resulted in a dramatic increase of greenhouse gas emissions associated with streaming. Minimize your output by downloading when you can or opting for analog by shopping for used CDs or vinyl at your local record store.
  12. Consider setting limits for streaming videos or screen time in general. In case it wasn’t clear, pretty much every move we make on our devices uses energy that often results in carbon emissions. While we know it’s not realistic to avoid altogether, we know many of us have plenty of wiggle room to minimize our usage. And we know that choosing to do so probably does our bodies some good too.

What's one thing you can do differently today?

Bonus: tap here to see which apps use renewable or dirty energy!

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