Turn off that camera during virtual meetings, says environmental study

A new study says that despite a record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, a pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment still presents significant environmental impact due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world.

One hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (a gallon of petrol burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams), requires 2-12 litres of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini. But leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96%.

The study, conducted by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the first to analyze the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure in addition to carbon footprints.

 

“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” said Roshanak “Roshi” Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, whose work looks to uncover gaps and assumptions in energy research that have led to underestimating the effects of climate change.

The team estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. As expected, the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints.

Because data processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center.

The internet’s carbon footprint had already been increasing before Covid-19 lockdowns, accounting for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have largely been overlooked in studies of how internet use impacts the environment, Madani said.

Madani teamed up with Nateghi’s research group to investigate these footprints and how they might be affected by increased internet traffic, finding that the footprints not only vary by web platform, but also by the country. The team gathered data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.

The study was supported by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, the Purdue Center for the Environment, the MIT Energy Initiative and the Yale MacMillan Center.

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