Back in the Stone Age of the internet, folks used to talk about how the World Wide Web would save the planet.

Dream on

Going digital would save on millions of tonnes of carbon emissions, so popular belief went. ‘Paperless bills’ would halt global deforestation. Email would replace unnecessarily long, energy-costly telephone calls. Video conferencing would cancel the need for executives to fly internationally for meetings, and apps would save on the manufacture of analogue hardware, such as fax machines and pocket calculators. In short, going online was considered to be ‘green activity’.

The truth is less comforting. A rash of new environmental studies are now helping to shed light on the most uncomfortable truth of the year: Our digital lives are anything but green, and this realisation could start triggering a change in consumer behaviour as the Greta Thunberg generation spends more time scrutinising its digital footprint. The quantitative evidence is certainly compelling.

Reality kicks in

Earlier this summer, the French NGO The Shift Project published a study concluding that online activity accounts for the production of almost 4% of global carbon emissions, compared to just 2.5% produced by the airline industry, accounting for the manufacture of all hardware and the electricity and fossil fuel consumption of both industries.

Such studies are also starting to recommend changes in consumer behaviour. Earlier this week, a new study commissioned by the UK’s leading independent energy provider OVO Energy concluded that Brits sent over 64 million ‘unnecessary emails’ every day – often one-word thank-you notes or other simple correspondence – and that such activity was contributing to the production of almost 23.5 tonnes of carbon each year.

The study concluded that if each UK adult would send one less ‘thank you’ email a day, the overall emissions saving would top 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent of taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

To help raise awareness of ‘unnecessary emails’, OVO Energy has created a carbon-reducing Chrome Extension called Carbon Capper that users can download to their browser that can track the word count of emails being sent and remind the user to ‘ensure more thoughtful email traffic’. That’s one recommendation that Microsoft and other leading email platforms may feel threatened by.

Firefox itself recommends end-users ‘reuse their search results’ by adopting the Firefox Address Bar. Firefox has highlighted a lazy short-cut that many will recognise: Much searching is ‘navigational’ and serial, rather than new searches for specific information. As an example, many people will search for ‘Facebook’ within a Google Search box and enter the platform from the top search result, rather than punch the word ‘Facebook’ straight into a browser bar. The Firefox Address Bar will autocomplete such entries with a drop-down to show matching web pages from the user’s browsing history, circumnavigating the energy consumption required for a fresh search, each time the user wants to check his or her Facebook page.

Enemy #1: Video streaming

But without doubt, the biggest digital carbon emissions-producing behaviour of them all is video streaming, with serial binge-watching likely to be the environmentally dirtiest of them all. That realisation could start to become a real problem for the likes of Netflix and Hulu.

Because if ‘flight shaming’ became a new phrase for the global dictionary in 2019, ‘digital binging shaming’ may likely follow in 2020.

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