We often hear that emptying your mailbox would be an important gesture for the planet in order to reduce your carbon footprint. However, sending fewer emails is an inefficient gesture for the climate. In The Conversation, 3 experts debunk this persistent myth.
The giant alleged carbon footprint of emails is a a topic often covered in the mediabut often exaggerated or even wrong.
According to them (and even according to French Minister of Energy Transition), reducing the amount of emails sent and deleting them would be important measures to reduce our carbon footprint.
The impact of digital services (streaming movies and series, listening to music, sending emails, meeting people by video conference, etc.) has been real and growing for several years. The information and communication technologies (ICT) sector represents 2.1-3.9% of global emissions annual emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) of anthropogenic origin. However, exaggerated email carbon footprints are misleading other levers of action that would significantly reduce the impact of ICT-related users.
As researchers working on quantifying anthropogenic GHG emissions, including those resulting from the use of ICTwe believe it is important to debunk this myth, which has persisted for several years, in order to focus on reducing the most important sources of GHGs in the ICT sector.
Carbon Footprint Origins of the Email Myth
Before we get to the heart of the matter, it’s worth understanding the origins of the first figures crunched by the media about the impact of emails.
The idea that sending fewer emails would reduce a significant amount of GHGs was popularized by Mike Berners-Lee in his book. How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everythingpublished in 2010. For the record, the author is the brother of Tim Berners-Leethe creator of navigation through Internet addresses (www, URL) and one of the forerunners ofPage.
The figures mentioned in this book are taken from several media around the globe, even in Canadawhich helped reinforce this idea.
For more, in a statement to the Financial Times in 2020, Mike Berners-Lee was cautious about interpreting his calculations. He said his assessments were useful for starting wider conversations, but it was essential to focus on larger issues related to ICT.
Sending less or deleting emails is just a symbolic gesture
What would happen if we decided to send significantly less email or delete our emails that are no longer useful? Apart from freeing up some space on the servers that host them, there is nothing to suggest that this can significantly reduce energy consumption in digital infrastructures. That is why:
1) Digital data storage and transmission systems operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with a more or less constant basic energy consumption, even when they are not required. Indeed, networks are sized to meet peak demands. Regardless of whether email is sent or not, networks will use roughly the same amount of power.
2) It is true that an incredible amount of spam (122 billion in 2022) and real emails (22 billion) are shipped per day. Even if these figures seem disturbing, the exchange of e-mails only represents 1% of internet traffic. By comparison, video services account for approx 82% of internet traffic and may increase further in the coming years.
3) Knowing that 85% of e-mail traffic is actually spam, sending fewer e-mails on an individual level has limited impact on reducing the amount of e-mail circulating in the Web page.
4) Whether email is sent or not, our computers and routers will always be on. Therefore, the electricity consumption associated with electronic devices will more or less always be the same. It’s very rare that we turn on a computer just to send an email.
5) Impact related to the use of data centers and network transmission is extremely poor when sending email. To get an idea, driving 1 km in a compact car emits as much GHG as the electricity used to transfer and store 3500 5 MB emails. Another example, the electricity needed to heat a cup of tea in a kettle uses as much electricity as transferring and storing 1500 1 MB emails.
6) Depending on the time it takes to sort and delete e-mail, the carbon footprint of computer use and the impact attributable to its production may be greater than can be reduced by deleting it. For example, deleting 1000 emails would have a carbon benefit of around 5g eq. Co.2. Based on the electrical mix of the province of Alberta (very carbon intensive electricity), the impact of using a laptop computer for 30 minutes emits 28 g ecu. Co.2 (production + electricity). In a Quebec context (low carbon electricity), this figure drops to 5 g eq. Co.2. In summary, manually deleting emails can have more impact than simply saving them, as it represents time spent in front of the computer.
So how do we reduce the carbon footprint of our emails?
To quantify the carbon footprint of an email, all the steps involved in its life cycle must be considered; from writing to receiving and reading emails.
The carbon footprint of emails is mainly related to the production of the electronic devices used to write and read them (about 70-90%). The use phase becomes more important, and may even exceed production, when the electricity used to power electronic equipment is produced primarily from fossil fuels (as in Alberta).
The best way to reduce the carbon footprint of e-mail is to extend the life of electronic devices and use those that consume less electricity.
Therefore, it makes more sense to focus our time and energy on actions that are truly effective in reducing our carbon footprint associated with the use of digital services (buying fewer electronic products and above all extending their lifespan) and other daily activities with high impact (transportation, eating and heating).
In short, you can delete your emails to save storage space or find what you’re looking for faster… but not necessarily to save the planet!
Luciano Rodrigues VianaPhD student in environmental sciences, Department of Basic Sciences, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi (UQAC); Jean-Francois BoucherProfessor, Eco-consultancy, University of Quebec at Chicoutimi (UQAC) AND Mohamed CherietFull Professor, Department of Systems Engineering and Director General, CIRODD: Interdisciplinary Research Center for Operationalizing Sustainability Development, Higher Technology School (ETS)
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