Imagine a typical present-day classroom, a teacher giving a lesson to a sea of blank Zoom squares. “Do you guys want to turn on your cameras?” they plead to the expressionless void. Well, according to a new study published in Resources, Conservation & Recycling, these shy students may in fact be saving the planet with their reclusive ways. They suggest that leaving your camera off in video calls could reduce your footprint by 96%. You can also reduce emissions by 86% as you settle down to watch something in your spare time, simply by streaming in standard definition rather than HD.
The study, conducted by researchers from Yale, Purdue, and MIT, looked at the environmental impact of internet use. In the paper, the authors write “The newly developed digital lifestyle has major environmental benefits, including the reduction of travel-related carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, increased Internet use has some hidden environmental impacts that must be uncovered to make the transition to a low- carbon and green economy successful.”
Before worldwide lockdowns were implemented the carbon footprint of the internet was already increasing, accounting for 3.7% of greenhouse gas emissions. The electricity consumption of data centers accounts for 1% of global energy demand – more than the national consumption of some countries. Since March, most countries have seen internet use increase by up to 20%. If this upward trend continues, the additional use alone will use enough water to fill over 300,000 Olympic swimming pools, have a land footprint the size of Los Angeles, and require 115,229 square kilometers (71,600 square miles) of forest to sequester the extra carbon emitted.
The researchers analyzed water, land, and carbon footprints for each gigabyte of data used on many different online platforms, from a variety of countries. They found that more video-heavy platforms had a higher footprint. They also found that water, land, and carbon footprints varied a large amount between the countries they studied. The land footprint of the UK was 281% higher than the global median, the water footprint of Brazil was 218% above the median, and the carbon footprint of South Africa was 59% above the median. The researchers theorize that this could be due to different forms of energy production.
The study suggested that if 1 million videoconference users turned off their cameras, monthly carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 9,023 tons, and if 70 million people streaming video lowered quality from HD to SD, there would be a monthly reduction of 2.5 million tons.
“Small actions such as turning off video during a virtual meeting, reducing the quality of streaming services, decreasing gaming time, limiting time on social media, deleting emails and unn[e]cessary content on the cloud-based storage services, or unsubscribing from email lists can significantly reduce the environmental footprints of Internet use,” wrote the authors.