The events of 2020 have pushed us into the digital world like never before. Meetings, lessons and social life have all moved onto video calls, reducing emissions from personal and professional travel significantly. Yet, the digital world is not without its environmental costs. It creates a digital carbon footprint. And making a few changes can not only reduce your digital emissions but also cut costs, improve efficiency and wellbeing.
Digital tech uses over 7% of global electricity and contributes more than 2% of global emissions, on a par with the fuels burned by the aviation industry.
Energy is needed to build computers, phones and servers; transport and install them, their cables and data centres (where all the information on the internet is saved); and to power it all every day. The giant servers host every website big and small, and they are hungry for power – as are the air conditioners that keep them cool. And our consumption of digital devices and online content is only growing.
Clearly, reducing the environmental impact of our technology must be part of our action to help address the climate crisis. What’s more, responsibility for digital overconsumption lies solely with high income countries like the UK but its harmful effects disproportionately affect poorer countries that haven’t benefited from technological advances. It is up to us to change when and how we use digital technology if we want to make a greener, safer, fairer world.
So how can we make sure digital is part of the solution and not the problem?
The biggest changes you can make are: buying less, repairing more and choosing second hand or refurbished devices. Then we need to improve our energy sources and reduce the amount of energy we use…
What can I do?
To help you reduce your digital carbon footprint, we have collated a list of changes you can make as an individual and at your English language teaching centre. If you have ideas to add or have made some these changes, please tell us about it: @ELTFootprintUK email@example.com.
- Buy second hand and repair your tech
- Switch host, search engine and email provider
- Break high-energy habits
- Spring clean your internet cupboards
- Don’t send for the sake of it
- Spend less time on screens
- Offset your carbon emissions
- Pressure government and private enterprise to change
- Share what you are doing – ideas spread
- Useful resources
The most impactful way you can cut your digital carbon footprint is by buying less and choosing second hand or refurbished equipment. As much as 70%-90% of emissions come from manufacture, so consuming less can make a huge difference.
Cutting your consumption and choosing second hand also reduces demand for conflict minerals such as gold, tin and tantalum, the mining of which involves exploitation, slavery and other serious human rights violations. Even when e-waste is recycled, it is dirty and dangerous work that is exported to poorer countries that are bearing the brunt of a climate crisis they play little to no part in creating, as Hannah Smith explained in her presentation for ELT Footprint UK.
Mobile phones are especially costly: they are at the top end of that range of emissions and pollution; use a large number of rare and conflict minerals; and have an incredibly high turnover. But it’s also easy to buy high quality second hand ones.
French think tank the Shift Project also recommends ‘lean ICT’ to reduce our digital carbon footprint – buy the least powerful equipment you need and change it as little as possible.
✓ look after your tech and repair it
✓ attend or host a repairing party with the Restart Project
✓ buy refurbished tech, especially mobile phones
✓ don’t buy more power than you need
✓ avoid ‘smart’ products (does your toothbrush really need wifi?)
We aren’t going to stop emailing and using websites anytime soon, so make them as green as possible by moving to green providers.
Make the switch from outlook or gmail to Kolab, Posteo, Tutanota or Runbox – these email hosts run on renewable energy and are suitable for individuals and businesses. They are also ad-free and prioritise privacy and security.
Likewise you can find a greener home for your website such as Kualo, cohosting, GreenGeeks, Green Hosting and more. You can check how green your website is, and measure the improvement when you make changes, using Website Carbon Calculator or Ecograder.
Set your homepage to Ecosia, which reinvests 80% of its profits to plant trees, or Ekoru which donates 60% of revenue to charitable partners in reforestation, climate action and conservation. Both use Bing and both use renewable energy to power their data centres.
There are also other charitable search engines such as giveWater – why not have a different default on each student computer and raise awareness and funds for different causes?
✓ switch to a green email provider
✓ use a green website host
✓ store files with a green cloud storage
✓ choose new default search engine
Note: Reducing your digital carbon footprint is not the only thing to take into account when choosing your providers. For example, while Google uses 100% renewable energy there are serious security and privacy concerns around the platform. Google has evaded tax and has partnerships with the fossil fuel and military industries. Google has also funded ‘free market’ think tanks that spread climate denial misinformation.
Turn it off, turn it down. While technological advances and a switch to renewable energy helps, changing our habits and behaviour is key to addressing the climate crisis. The best energy on the planet, is the energy we don’t use, as Hannah Smith reminded us in her presentation for ELT Footprint UK.
Keep energy consumption down by reducing monitor brightness and setting computers to sleep after 5 minutes (a third of a computer’s energy is used but the screen!); turn everything off when you’re not using it; keep devices running smoothly by deleting unnecessary files and programs, and running disk cleanup); and adjust your energy settings.
Video uses far more energy than audio (7.5x as much!) so turn it off whenever possible. Start group meetings with video introductions then switch to audio only, especially if someone is presenting. If you’re having a meeting with one other person, just have a phone call. This will help avoid ‘zoom fatigue’ too. But of course where video is needed, e.g. for teaching or safeguarding reasons, use it!
When you do have video meetings, keep them short and focussed – this is good for everyone involved as well as the environment. Remember, your internal communications or project planning challenges cannot be solved by tech, but by organisation, clear purpose, good communication and using tech well.
✓ use energy saving and sleep settings
✓ turn things off and unplug
✓ download albums you listen to frequently
✓ if you don’t need video, don’t use it
✓ normalise interruption or signals to highlight digression to keep meetings succinct
Everything we store online uses energy, even those emails from a years ago that you will never look at again. Delete them!
This also applies to images, documents and other assets uploaded to websites and cloud storage. Keeping these files clean and tidy will not only make them easier and more pleasant to use, but will keep their carbon footprint lower too.
✓ delete emails you no longer need
✓ regularly clear out online drives, boxes and clouds
✓ delete old assets from your website and e-marketing platforms
✓ unsubscribe from those emails you have been deleting for months
If you search for sustainable or green email marketing you will likely open many a promising tab only to find yourself reading about conservation of customer attention, protection of your digital marketing ecosystem and how to promote how green you are.
But how can you make your actual day-to-day email marketing greener?
While there are green email tools for individual sending, we were surprised to find no e-marketing platforms (the mailchimps of this world) that promote themselves as green. Please tell us if you know or start one! In the meantime we can tweak how we use these tools.
Essentially, do less but better. We already know that excessive, unfocussed marketing isn’t effective. If your contacts receive irrelevant emails, they’ll lose trust in you, will stop reading and start unsubscribing. And on top of that, every time you send an email it uses up another nugget of server storage and increases your negative environmental impact. So fewer, more targeted email campaigns are more sustainable for both your business and the environment.
✓ optimise your email campaigns by narrowly targeting your messages
✓ prioritise qualitative over the quantitative
✓ make sure your images aren’t too big
✓ compress PDFs
Note: environmental impact isn’t the only ethical matter at hand here. Make sure you are hot on consent and data use in your e-marketing too.
Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce your digital carbon footprint is to simply use digital less.
Most data consumption online is from watching videos. Try to watch shows intentionally, rather than as background noise, and spend more time do other things. In the office, remove welcome screens and turn everything off when it’s not being used.
✓ resist the screen
✓ or be like gen z and watch on your phone (it uses 15x less energy!)
✓pay attention to screen time information on your phone – and challenge yourself to reduce it
✓ go for a walk, talk, read, stretch, bake
✓ focus your square eyes on a distant roof or pigeon
We all need to change our behaviour to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The sum of all our actions and the influence we have on others when we break old habits is critical.
But we must also demand change from those who have a bigger impact like businesses and governments.
✓ tweet @ your digital suppliers about becoming greener
✓ remember climate and social justice when you vote
✓ demand local and national government prioritise green industrial revolution
✓ join campaigns, protests and lobbying
As individuals and small organisations, the best way to maximise our impact is to talk about it. Let your UK ELT colleagues know what changes you are making to reduce your digital carbon footprint. Celebrate your actions no matter how small and share your plans no matter how ambitious, ask for tips and ideas, share problems, ask for help and explain how you overcame challenges.
And always include us so we can join in the conversation: @ELTFootprintUK #GreenELT
✓ post a photo or short video taken on your phone
✓ share articles that inspire you
✓ create a dedicated webpage explaining your commitment
✓ celebrate and thank others
Hannah Smith on how to reduce your digital carbon footprint
On Thursday 10 December Hannah Smith, a freelance WordPress developer with a BSc in Computer Science, presented on how to reduce your digital carbon footprint.