Could sending less email or keeping your inbox empty help fight climate change?

Quebec. The massive carbon footprint left behind by email has been widely discussed in the media, but most of the time these discussions are exaggerated. According to France’s energy transition minister, Agnes Pannier-Ranacher, reducing the number of emails sent and deleted will reduce the individual’s carbon footprint. Newspapers have also expressed these views.

In a recently published paper, we found that some well-known digital activities, such as sending email, contribute only marginally to the annual carbon footprint of information and communication technology users. As researchers working on the environmental impacts of our actions, we believe it is important to clear up this confusion, which has persisted for many years, so that we can focus on preventing large sources of carbon footprints .

carbon impact of email
The idea that sending less email would reduce a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is supported by Mike Berners-Lee’s book ‘How Bad Are Bananas? Got popularity from ‘The Carbon Footprint of Everything’.

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The book mentions that a person’s average annual email use produces three to 40 kilograms of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, or carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), equivalent to driving between 16 and 206 kilometers in a small petrol car. Is equal to. These figures were picked up by several media outlets around the world, which helped reinforce the idea.

The carbon value, as seen in Berners-Lee’s book, varies from 0.3 to 50 grams of CO2e per email. But these numbers are constantly changing and seem tiny compared to the carbon footprints of the so-called solutions.

Measuring the Carbon Footprint of Email or Digital Services Isn’t Easy
Measuring the carbon footprint of sending email, or any other digital service, is not an easy task. The results depend heavily on the assumptions made and the data used. And the energy efficiency of data transmission and storage is constantly improving.

Can sending fewer emails or deleting them really help? So, what if we decide to send fewer emails or delete emails that are no longer useful? There is no evidence that we can substantially reduce the energy consumption of digital infrastructure, other than freeing up some space on the servers that host them.

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Let’s find out why
Digital data storage and transmission systems operate 24/7, with a more or less constant base load of energy, even when not in use. The network will use approximately the same amount of energy regardless of whether the email is sent or not.

An incredible number of spam emails (122 billion in 2022) and genuine emails (22 billion) are sent every day. While these numbers sound alarming, email exchanges only represent one percent of Internet traffic. In comparison, video streaming services account for about 82 percent of Internet traffic, and this is likely to increase further in the coming years.

Knowing that 85 percent of email traffic is actually spam, sending less email on an individual level will have a limited effect on reducing the amount of email traffic on the web.

Our computers and routers are always on, regardless of whether an email has been sent or not. Therefore, the power consumption associated with electronic equipment will more or less always remain the same. Very rarely do we turn on the computer to send an email.

The impacts associated with the use of data centers and transmission networks are minimal. To give you an idea, driving one kilometer in a compact car emits as much CO2e as the electricity used to send and store 3,500 emails of five MB each. The amount of electricity needed to heat a cup of tea in a kettle is enough to transfer and store about 1,500 emails of 1 MB.

Deleting 1,000 emails would result in a carbon benefit of about five grams of CO2e. However, in high carbon electricity use provinces like Alberta, the effect of using a laptop for 30 minutes (to delete these emails) emits 28 grams of CO2e. In Quebec, where electricity generation has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the sector, this figure is equivalent to about five grams of CO2e. Therefore, manually deleting emails can actually have a higher carbon impact than archiving them, because you spend more time using the computer.

Reducing the Carbon Impact of Our Email Use?
In order to quantify the carbon footprint of an email, it is necessary to take into account all the steps involved in its life cycle, from composing emails to receiving and reading them, to saving or archiving them.

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Overall, the carbon footprint of email is primarily associated with the manufacturing of the electronic devices used to write and read them.

The actual use of the equipment becomes more important, and may even be more important than the manufacture, as the electricity used to run these equipment is mainly generated from fossil fuels.

The best way to reduce the carbon footprint of email is to buy fewer electronic products, make these devices last as long as possible, and use equipment that consumes less power.

Send email only when you need to or when you think the recipient will appreciate your message, even if it only includes a simple thank you. You delete your emails if you want to save storage space, find what you’re looking for more quickly, or there are many other good reasons to do so besides saving the planet.

Tags: digital world, environment

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