It has always struck me as unrealistic to pat ourselves on the back for saving paper because we are using computers instead. There is clearly an environmental cost to having and using computers, but it is a hidden cost so trying to quantify it is difficult. There is of course the E-Waste problem, but that is different from the ongoing use of energy to transfer data over the internet.
So when I found this excellent episode of In Real Life on The Internet’s Carbon Footprint I was fascinated and started thinking about ways we could use this information with students.
The episode starts with Kyle Devine sharing that “streaming music online emits up to 350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas. In one year. In the US alone. It’s the same as if we drove 74,000 cars for a year. ” Given how much music streaming is a part of our students’ lives I think this is a statistic worth discussing with them. I suspect that many students who try to do the right thing by recycling and saying no to plastic bags are happily streaming their tunes with no real thought to the environmental impact.
Miles Traer then came on to describe a remarkably simple way of (roughly) calculating the amount of carbon produced by 1 episode of IRL. Listen to the podcast for the details of his calculation, but in essence “in 2019 it takes around one kilowatt hour of electricity to transfer one gigabyte of information on the internet.” That includes the energy needed to stream the data from the server and to download it to your phone.
That’s simple math. It’s basically the amount of energy you need to “burn a 100 watt light bulb for 10 hours”. So if you leave your house to go to school and conscientiously turn off the light you are in effect negating this good deed if you stream 1 GB of music during the day.
The other number needed to calculate the environmental impact of being online is the carbon emissions coefficient; essentially, how much carbon gets released when 1 kilowatt hour of electricity is used. This is a bit of an estimate given how many different sources of power there are, but the number that Miles used was 650 grams of carbon for every kilowatt hour. Again, listen to the podcast for how he got this number.
So if you know how much data you are downloading, you just need to multiply by 650 to figure out how much carbon is being emitted. The IRL episode I listened to ended up emitting 1,160 kilograms of carbon, or a little less that 3 barrels of oil. Which made me feel quite guilty until it was pointed out that a single 1 hour TV show emits 100 times more carbon!
The message from all this that I plan on sharing with my students is not that they should stop listening to music, or watching movies online, but that whenever possible it is much more environmentally friendly to download than to stream whenever they feel like it. Every time a student streams a youtube video to listen to a song there is an environmental impact (as opposed to downloasing it once, then listening to it lots), but I don’t think we do a very good job helping them be aware of this.
Some other good tips for reducing your carbon footprint include:
- Adjust power settings
- Lower monitor brightness
- Turn on strict tracking protection. It turns out tracking = more data transfer = more energy used.
- Download instead of stream.
- Reuse searches. My students are experts at searching for Google Drive or Classroom, as opposed to typing the address into the search bar and using the suggestions feature. The inefficiency of this approach has always bugged me, but I hadn’t considered that there was also an environmental cost to this behaviour as searching = more data transfer.
- Offset your digital carbon footprint. I was fascinated to learn about Ecosia, a search engine that plants trees!
- Get bored.
Caveat: Things get a little more complicated by the fact that not all internet companies have the same approach to power usage, with Google and Facebook actually getting As in Greenpeace’s 2017 Click Clean Report.