Think before you click – and three other ways to reduce your digital carbon footprint | Koren Helbig

It’s been called “the largest coal-powered machine on Earth” – and most of us use it countless times a day.

The internet and its associated digital industry are estimated to produce about the same emissions annually as aviation. But we barely think about pollution while snapping 16 duplicate photos of our pets, which are immediately uploaded to the cloud.

This is the invisible downside to our online lives: the data we produce is stored and processed in giant energy-guzzling datacentres dotted all over the world.

Over the past year I’ve delved into digital waste and learned key ways we can lower our digital carbon footprints.

1. Think before you click

Every document, photo and email – even every “like” or comment on social media – travels through multiple electricity-hungry layers of internet infrastructure, including computer servers housed in mindbogglingly large datacentres.

“The biggest datacentre on the planet … south of Beijing … has a surface area of 600,000 square metres, the equivalent of 110 football pitches,” writes the French journalist Guillaume Pitron in his 2021 book, The Dark Cloud: How the Digital World Is Costing the Earth.

Processing data within these “factories of the digital age” creates heat as a waste product, requiring air conditioning or chilled water systems – largely powered by coal – to maintain stable temperatures.

I started with small changes to reduce my data use – unsubscribing from unwanted newsletters and deleting unused phone apps.

I also avoid firing up generative AI for simple answers – it uses an estimated four to five times the energy of a conventional web search.

2. Clear the virtual clutter

Most of us hoard thousands of old or unread emails and countless photo duplicates. Regularly deleting them can help reduce your digital footprint.

Many inboxes allow you to search via file size; I’ve made a habit of periodically searching “1MB or larger” and deleting any emails with sizeable attachments I no longer need. Searching via sender name allows you to bulk-delete hundreds of marketing emails in one satisfying click.

In my professional and personal lives I take hundreds of photos shot in RAW, a file format two to six times larger than JPG – so I’m diligent about deleting duplicates almost immediately.

Android and iPhone offer basic “free up space” bulk-delete functionality for photos and files. Or try the GetSorted app, which breaks photo clean-up tasks into achievable chunks.

3. Minimise cloud storage

By next year the digital industry is set to become the fourth-highest electricity consumer in the worldbehind China, India and the US.

To reduce my reliance on energy-intensive cloud storage, I’ve gone analogue. I store all my photos and files on password-protected hard drives, which only use energy when plugged in. I back these up quarterly to two copies, one of which is stored at a friend’s place in case of fire or theft at mine.

This helps save money as I pay for just one cloud subscription – where I only store the files I’m working on.

That system may be a bit too clunky for most – so regular clean-ups of the files you are choosing to store on the cloud becomes more important.

4. Keep devices for as long as possible

While it’s tempting to continually upgrade to the latest gadget, new devices come at a hefty environmental cost. The manufacture of a smartphone, for example, accounts for about 80% of its lifetime carbon emissions, according to the UN Environment Program.

So the longer we keep using a device, the better. Refurbished phones and computers are becoming more common, and IT community websites such as ifixit.com can help you repair products yourself.

Even clearing cyber clutter can help prolong your device’s lifespan, according to a Macquarie University human geography associate professor, Dr Jessica McLean.

“My computer was running slowly and my browser kept crashing,” she says. “It turned out I had a bunch of videos and big documents stored that were eating a lot of memory. We deleted them and my computer started working again.”

But McLean, who wrote a book about the high environmental impact of digital activity, warns that the burden of digital pollution can’t fall to individuals alone.

“We need to be part of a systemic structural shift,” she says. “And that means taking individual opportunities to intervene but also demanding and expecting our governments to better regulate corporations and shift to carbon-neutral options.”

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