COP26: Why is no one talking about digital carbon?

Plus, eight small steps for reducing your personal and professional digital carbon footprint

This article is brought to you in collaboration with Greenpixie.

My heart began to beat a little faster today, as I opened an in-depth analysis of Earth Collective’s website carbon emissions from Greenpixie.

As a planet-positive business, there are many small steps our team takes every day to reduce our personal and professional carbon footprint. But as a business that primarily lives online, what can we do about the digital carbon footprint of our core communications channel – our website?

What’s the problem with digital carbon?

The carbon footprint of digital services was brought into the spotlight earlier this year when cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, were criticised for their impact on the environment, with one single Bitcoin leaving a carbon footprint of 360kg – approximately the equivalent of four and a half flights from London to Paris.

But have you ever thought about how your own online activities impact the environment?

Sure, we need electricity to run or charge our devices and power our wireless networks, but that’s only a small part of a much bigger picture.

When we share files, send emails, save photos and videos to the cloud, post on Instagram or join a Zoom call, all that activity needs data centres and vast servers to support it, and store the content we access and share across the internet.

When you consider that approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6 percent of the global population, now use the internet, activity and carbon emissions can quickly add up.

Data centres and user devices are estimated to be responsible for the largest proportion of global emissions. A September 2021 study from the University of Lancaster found that by 2050, the IT sector could represent as much as 35 percent of global emissions. This is almost double the greenhouse gas share of agriculture, land use and forestry emissions in 2016.

The impact of the pandemic

As the world moved further online during the pandemic, we became even more reliant on digital services to keep our businesses alive, keep in touch with friends and family, and even order our weekly grocery shop.

A Yale-led study investigated the hidden environmental footprint of this surge in digital activity, estimating its carbon emissions, water consumption, and land usage. Published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, the study estimated that internet usage increased by up to 40 percent worldwide following the issuance of stay-at-home orders from January through March 2020 as the virus spread.

According to the study, this spike in online activity triggered a demand for up to 42.6 million megawatt-hours of additional electricity to support data transmission and to power data centres – the buildings that house the hardware and data of computer networks, cloud services, and digital applications.

Digital carbon accounts for nearly four percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to Greenpixie, which is in the business of measuring the digital carbon output of websites. To put that into perspective, four percent of the world’s CO2 emissions is quite similar, or even higher, than the amount released by the aviation industry.

In fact, if the internet was a country, it would currently be the 7th largest CO2 emitter in the world, right behind China, the US, India, Russia, Japan and Germany, and it is starting to creep up that Top Ten list that no one wants to be on.

2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)

So, why is no one talking about digital carbon? Especially this week, at the biggest climate conference of the year?

COP26 itself could do with taking a look at its own digital carbon footprint. Greenpixie’s calculator estimates that every visit to produces 14.07g of CO2.

That’s worse than 97 percent of websites.

What can businesses do to reduce their carbon emissions?

The good news is – it doesn’t have to be this way.

Data centres currently adapt to increased demand by increasing the amount of hardware they operate, which requires resources, manufacture and energy, even if the centre is using recycled options. Even renewable energy is yet to have a zero-carbon footprint, and many data centres that currently run on renewable energy have to rely on diesel backup generators at peak times.

Greenpixie’s services reduce the energy consumption of both the server sending the data, and the end user viewing it, which leads to increased data efficiency and reduces demand for resources. Greenpixie does this by producing in-depth reports for clients who are looking to accurately calculate their website’s impact on the environment, and then performing a Lossless Optimisation on the website, which reduces the site’s digital carbon footprint, without impacting the look or feel.

A spokesperson at Greenpixie told me: “Using tech to bring awareness, measure and then reduce carbon is exactly what we’re doing at Greenpixie. This isn’t about offsetting carbon emissions, but rather, drastically reducing them at source. On average we’ve been able to reduce our partners’ digital footprints by 50 percent.”

What about Earth Collective?

If you were still wondering, according to the Digital Carbon Report provided to us by Greenpixie, Earth Collective is really close to being a low carbon website. Low-carbon websites are those which fall below 1.2g CO2 emissions per view. Earth Collective is currently sitting at 1.38g – so pretty low, but still not low enough.

The team at Greenpixie assures me that just a bit of work on our heaviest pages would be enough to get over the threshold, which is good news – and something we will absolutely be addressing, with their help.

It’s just one more small step in the right direction, but as we can see from the impact our collective digital emissions are having on our environment, it’s certainly a small step we should all embark on. And if you’re interested in taking action to reduce your digital carbon footprint, read on for some simple steps you can take today to do just that.

Eight small steps to reduce your digital carbon footprint

1. Talk to Greenpixie.

If you have a website and you are worried about your CO2 emissions, Greenpixie offers a service which reduces digital carbon emissions, without impacting the look or feel of your site. On average, Greenpixie has been able to reduce their partners’ digital footprints by 50 percent.

2. Do you need to send that email?

The carbon footprint of an email can range from 0.03g CO2 for a spam mail to 0.3g for a short email and 17g for a long email. In the UK, it’s estimated that 64 million ‘thank you’ emails are sent every day. That adds up to 7,008 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions every year in the UK alone, that’s enough to drive an average car for 17,389,578 miles.

3. Choose carefully who gets a CC or a BCC.

How often are you CC’d or BCC’d on an email you didn’t really need to receive? Now you have a reason to tell them to STOP! You’ll save 0.3g to 17g of CO2 emissions for every person that isn’t put on CC, not to mention a less stressful inbox.

4. Clean your cloud.

Clean out your inbox and cloud storage. Try to back up only what’s essential, because everything you save takes up space in a data centre somewhere. Using an external hard drive should have less power-draw and can be really handy for files that just need storing and not sharing.

5. Listen to music without video.

If you’re listening to music, do it on a program or app that only plays music and not video. Or for a much better, slower music experience, go vinyl. Old school turntables have been making a comeback recently, why not add one to your home office and enjoy the mellow sounds that can only be found through vinyl.

6. Use links instead of big attachments.

You can go from 17g of CO2 emissions for an email with attachments to 0.3g for an email with a simple link. Wetransfer is a useful B Corp certified tool for doing this exact job.

7. Choose your search engine wisely.

Search engines like Ecosia or Gexsi actually help the environment – Gexsi by using its profits to support the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and Ecosia by investing 80% of their profits into several projects that plant trees.

8 Close your tabs.

This is one you can do right now. Close your tabs, clear your brain and reduce your carbon footprint, right now – go!

IndependentGreenpixieBBCScience DirectQuest Impact Design StudioWorldometers
Show more

Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (, and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

Related articles

Back to top button