Digital carbon footprint: the impact of our online activity

It's an intangible thing, but have you ever wondered how our online activity generates pollution?

Most of our communications, documents and images are now digitised. This can be seen as a good thing from an environmental point of view: less mail means less wasted paper and fewer plastic envelopes.

But have you ever thought about the impact that sending and storing emails, text messages or photos might have on your carbon footprint? Just because we can't physically see or touch the data we send and receive throughout the day doesn't mean it's without impact.

Every year, the Internet releases about 300 million tonnes of CO2. Every time you send an email, it passes through or is stored in a data centre. These data centres require massive energy use, both to power the machines and for the air conditioning needed to keep the servers from overheating. 

Almost everything we do online leaves a trace. It has a name: it is our digital carbon footprint. We are not saying that digitisation is bad and should be stopped. It is probably still better than paper for many obvious reasons. But we need to be a little more conscious of our digital usage.



According to Google itself, almost 4 million search queries are made every minute. Each of these uses about 0.0003 kWh. Two hundred searches therefore use about the same amount of energy as ironing a shirt.

Consider using a search engine such as Ecosia, which will help you offset this footprint by reversing deforestation, for example. 


A typical year's worth of email for one person, including sending, filtering and reading emails, creates a carbon footprint ofaround 135kg. This is equivalent to driving 200 miles in an average car...

What could you do personally? 

Reduce the size of emails you send by reducing the resolution of images and compressing documents. Switch to lighter file formats or replace attachments with a hyperlink.

You can also regularly clean up your mailing lists and unsubscribe from newsletters you never read (many applications help you do this, such as Unlistr or

If, like many of us, you're a bit stuck at home, maybe it's a good time to delete all your old emails that are no longer needed. A French telecommunications company has estimated that if 100,000 people deleted 50 old emails, it would save as much energy as turning off 2.7 billion light bulbs for an hour (link to study). Crazy, isn't it? 



We wouldn't want to spoil your Netflix night. But streaming is very power hungry. So if you ever feel like doing something else, pick up a book!



The amount of energy used to maintain and operate cloud storage also has an impact on the environment. Data centres contain thousands of servers, which need to be powered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to ensure continuous access to data. In addition, when data is stored, it is usually duplicated on different servers. Why, you ask? This ensures a backup in case of data loss during a breakdown for example.

Many Internet companies have started to take steps to green their clouds by using renewable energy to power their centres. But the greenest energy is the energy that is not used.

So what can you do on a personal level? Amongst other things, you can delete your old posts, tweets or photos that have become obsolete on your social networks (Facebook, Tweeter, Instagram, etc). Then sort out your files, documents and photos on your cloud. Think of it as a little "Marie Kondo cleaning" of your storage.

So yes, even though we can't see it, this data does pollute because it has to be stored. Small actions such as sorting and deleting your old emails/photos can reduce your carbon footprint. We're all at home right now: this is probably the best time to do it!




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