What’s the problem with digital carbon?

What’s the problem with digital carbon?


Have you ever thought about how your online activities impact the environment? 

Everything we do online has a footprint. When we share files, send emails, save documents, photos and videos to the cloud, post on Instagram or join a Zoom call, all that activity requires vast data centres and servers to support it and store the content we access and share across the internet. The average website produces 1.76g of carbon (CO2) emissions for every page view, which means a site with 100,000 page views a month emits 2,112kg of CO2 emissions every year – the equivalent of an average petrol car being on the road for a year. One email with one photo emits as much as 50g of CO2 emissions, so five campaigns going to 100 subscribers emits roughly the same CO2 emissions as driving 60 miles in a petrol powered car. Publishing one photo on Instagram results in a carbon footprint of about 0.15g of CO2e emissions per minute. Multiply that by 1.4 billion active Instagram users…. well, that’s maths I can’t do!

When you consider that approximately 4.1 billion people (or 53.6 percent of the global population) now use the internet, imagine how quickly those carbon emissions are adding up. Digital carbon emissions now account for more than four percent of global carbon emissions, which is more than the entire aviation sector. In fact, if the internet was a country, it would be the 4th largest CO2 emitter in the world, and it has been creeping up that Top Ten list that no one wants to be on for the last few years.

Yet, digital carbon is perhaps the most easily forgotten negative planetary polluter, partly because it is not something you can see, in the way you can see plastic pollution, or food waste, or deforestation. However, what we can see is the impact of digital carbon emissions.


What are the impacts of digital carbon emissions?

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are the main driver of global warming and therefore climate change, which is responsible for the increase in frequency and severity of extreme global weather events, such as the recent cyclones in New Zealand, the deadly heatwaves in India, Pakistan and Europe, flooding in south-east Asia, and bushfires in Australia and California. In fact, 80-90% of natural disasters in the last 10 years have been from floods, droughts and severe storms (WHO, n.d.). Natural emergencies like these lead to loss of homes, animals, incomes, livelihoods, nature, people and land. 700 million people are at-risk of being displaced as a result of drought alone by 2030 (WHO, n.d) and there could be as many as 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050 (IEP, 2020) that’s 15 percent of the current global population.

Scientists and leaders all over the world have repeatedly said that collectively, we need to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, if we are to keep within planetary boundaries (that is, the limits within which humanity can continue to thrive for generations to come). After that, the risk of irreversible changes to the climate become greatly increased. To keep within these limits, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2023) advises that GHG emissions must be reduced by at least 43 percent by 2030 (compared to 2019 levels) and by at least 60% by 2035.

What can businesses do to reduce their digital carbon emissions?

Digital carbon emissions fall under Scope 3, which is largely unaccounted for in ESG metrics. So for digital, remote businesses like Hello Earth (and many of our clients), whose digital carbon footprint needs to be carefully considered if we are to reduce our negative impact on the social and environmental systems we all rely on…. 

Where do we start?

Hello Earth is a team of channel experts, data nerds and insight gurus, so nothing comes more naturally to us than measuring and analysing data to identify strategies to improve performance for our clients’ businesses. And the same approach can be applied to digital carbon. As H. James Harrington famously said: “Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it”. 

So, as an online or ecommerce business:

  1. The first step to reducing your digital carbon footprint is to identify what your key digital channels are and how you use them in the marketing mix, to then…
  2. Measure and assess the impact of your digital marketing activity, including energy consumption, digital carbon emissions and digital carbon wastage. 
  3. Once you understand where you are at now, you can then take steps to improve your processes to reduce your carbon footprint over time. 
  4. Finally, because in today’s wild world getting to a point where your carbon emissions are zero will be almost impossible, once you have reduced as much as you possibly can, the final step is to work with credible partners to offset the rest. 

Seven small steps to reduce your digital carbon footprint right now

We’re not about placing the responsibility of protecting social and environmental systems on the individual; however, if after reading this, you and your team are feeling motivated to take some small steps to improve your business’ digital carbon footprint, here’s a list that might help.

1. 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, 17g for a long email and up to 50g for an email with a photo. 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; enough to drive an average car for 17,389,578 miles.

2. 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 another reason to tell them to STAHP! 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.

3. 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.

4. Listen to music without video.

If you’re listening to music, do it on a programme 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 office and enjoy the mellow sounds that can only be found through vinyl.

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.

6. 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.

7. 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!


5 natural disasters that beg for climate action (Oxfam)

Your website is killing the planet, WIRED

Talking Purpose with Dr. Jennifer Kuklenski (Easy Being Green?)

Causes and Effects of Climate Change (United Nations) 

Drought (WHO)

Over one billion people at threat of being displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict and civil unrest (IEP)

Climate experts warn world leaders 1.5C is ‘real science’, not just talking point (Guardian)

Explainer: What’s the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming? (Reuters)