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.

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How continued increases in virtual meetings and internet use would impact the environment

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:

  • YouTube
  • Zoom
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • 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.

The researchers say that since the calculations reflect only the known data from service providers and third parties, they contain a margin of error. However, the research team believes that these estimates shed light on the previously overlooked impacts of internet use on the environment. They hope that the study will help the public better understand how to reduce their technology footprint.

“These are the best estimates given the available data. In view of these reported surges, there is a hope now for higher transparency to guide policy,” Nateghi said.

Funding for the study came from the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, the Purdue Center for the Environment, the MIT Energy Initiative, and the Yale MacMillan Center.

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Final thoughts: virtual meetings and other internet usages greatly impact the environment

Many people don’t think about how working from home, or surfing Netflix affects the environment. We may think that it actually benefits the planet because we don’t have to drive to work. However, technology use still creates land, water, and carbon footprints because of how the data gets processed.

Even though we can’t escape technology in today’s modern world, we can still do our part to protect the planet. The researchers found that turning off your camera during virtual meetings can lessen the environmental impact. Also, choosing to stream content in standard instead of high definition provides a greener option. If we all heed the advice from the study, we can make a huge difference without even leaving our homes.