If you leave the camera off during your next virtual meeting on Zoom, chances are that you will be helping in reducing the planet’s carbon footprint. A new environmental study says that despite a record fall in global carbon emissions in 2020, the drastic shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment due to the pandemic still presents significant environmental impact, primarily because of how internet data is stored and transferred around the world.
Conducted by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this study is the first to analyze the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure in addition to carbon footprints. The findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling earlier this month.
For example, just one hour of video-conferencing or streaming emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams), requires 2-12 liters of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini, an official release from Purdue University explains. Leaving your camera off during a web video call can reduce these footprints by 96%, the researchers estimate. Streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition, or HD, while using apps such as Netflix or Hulu also could bring an 86% reduction, the release explains.
“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” Roshanak Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, said in the release. A number of countries have reported at least a 20% increase in internet traffic since March last year. If the trend continues through the end of 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest of about 71,600 square miles to sequester the emitted carbon, the study found.
“The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would also be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, while the resulting land footprint would be about equal to the size of Los Angeles,” the release explains.
The research team also estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte, or GB, of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms. This included online gaming and general web surfing. The more video used in an application, the larger the footprints, findings from the study explain.
Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center, says while the internet’s carbon footprint had already been increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have been mostly overlooked. “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,” Madani says in the release.
Madani and Nateghi's research group investigated these footprints and how they might be affected by increased internet traffic. They found that the footprints vary not only according to the web platform, but also by country. The team gathered publicly available data from service providers and third parties for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US.
While these estimates are rough, the team hopes the findings will still help in documenting a trend and bringing a more comprehensive understanding of the environmental footprints of internet use, the release adds.