While working from home helps the environment somehow, we can all make virtual meetings even greener. Researchers say that keeping your camera off during online meetings can reduce your carbon footprint. The new study says that even though carbon emissions decreased in 2020, increased technology use puts a significant strain on the environment.
Because of the pandemic, more people started working from home and looked to technology for entertainment. This influx of online activities increases carbon emissions because of how internet data is stored and transferred worldwide. For example, one hour of virtual meetings or streaming content emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide. It also requires 2-12 liters of water and land, equating to an iPad Mini size.
However, a recent study from Purdue, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered how to reduce these numbers. The research revealed that simply keeping your camera off during virtual meetings can reduce your carbon footprint by 96%. Also, streaming content from apps like Netflix or Hulu in standard instead of high definition can reduce it by around 86%.
This groundbreaking study about the carbon, water, and land footprints associated with internet use shows the hidden impact of technology. It was published last month in the journal Resources, Conversation & Recycling.
“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” said Roshanak “Roshi” Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering. His work aims to uncover the overlooked environmental impact of increased technology use and how it affects climate change.
Since March of last year, many countries have reported around a 20% uptick in internet use. Researchers say that if this trend continues through 2021, the additional internet traffic will require 71,600 square miles of land. This equates to a land area twice the size of Indiana required to capture the additional carbon emissions.
Also, the storage and transmission of data would require water equal to 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. As far as the consequent land footprint, it would measure about the size of Los Angeles.
The team then estimated the environmental impact associated with each gigabyte of data used in the following apps:
- 12 other platforms
- online gaming
- miscellaneous web surfing
Not surprisingly, the team found that increased video usage within an app led to a larger footprint. Since data processing requires an abundance of electricity, and producing electricity requires carbon, water, and land, decreasing downloads also reduces environmental impact.
“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center.
Carbon footprints associated with internet use had already been increasing before pandemic lockdowns, equating to about 3.7% of global carbon emissions. However, the water and land footprints of technology use have been forgotten in research about how internet use affects the environment.
Madani joined Nateghi’s research group to study how these footprints impact the environment. Interestingly, they found that water and land footprints vary depending on the web application and country.
The environmental impacts of virtual meetings and other internet applications by country
The team gathered data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. The team found that internet usage in the U.S. had a 9% higher carbon footprint than the world average. However, the water and land footprints were 45% and 58% lower.
In other countries, the team discovered surprising data about the water and land footprints associated with internet use. Germany, for example, a pioneering country in sustainable energy, had a much lower-than-average carbon footprint. However, its water and land footprints greatly surpassed the world median. Researchers estimated the country had a land footprint 204% above average.
Purdue graduate students Renee Obringer, Benjamin Rachunok, and Debora Maia-Silva, performed the calculations and data analysis. Maryam Arbabzadeh, a postdoctoral research associate at MIT, also collaborated on the research. Their estimates came from publicly available data for each internet platform and country. They also utilized models created by Madani’s research group and known values of energy consumption per gigabyte of fixed-line internet use.