According to a recent piece by the Canadian Press, you should be deleting your old emails in order to fight excessive energy consumption. In reality, the energy consumption of emails is a good conversation starter but not a serious concern.
The Canadian Press’ story opens with data showing that last year, email users sent and received 333 billion e-mails a day. That’s accurate. However, it goes on to reference Mike Berners-Lee, a UK-based sustainability researcher and founder of Small World Consulting.
Berners-Lee’s method for calculating the environmental cost of an email, which The Canadian Press refers to, is more than a decade old. It’s from his 2010 book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Furthermore, the point of the book wasn’t to stop eating bananas or sending emails, it was to open the reader’s mind and help start new conversations.
Email’s carbon impact is ‘trivial’ because it’s overblown
More recently, the environmental impact of emails (and Berners-Lee’s work) was brought up in 2019. OVO Energy put out a press release about the number of “unnecessary” emails sent in the United Kingdom. It particularly focused on ‘thank you’ emails. This prompted a discussion among UK government officials.
The BBC covered it at the time and found that “even if the sums involved roughly worked out, it would still be a splash in the pond. The UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions were 435.2 million tonnes in 2019 – so the amount in question here is about 0.0037% of the national picture. And that’s if every single British person reduced their email output.”
Berners-Lee also made a comment on Twitter about it, clarifying that “the carbon footprint of sending an email is trivial.”
To clarify, following FT and BBC pieces, the carbon footprint of sending an email is trivial. Looks like UK gov has misused a press release from OVO that in turn used estimates from the 2010 version of my book ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ (now updated).https://t.co/pm3gqP5blO
— Mike Berners-Lee (@MikeBernersLee) November 19, 2020
One major reason that the impact of emails is “trivial” is that they’re overblown in the first place. When the impact of emails is calculated, everything is included, from the power used by the Wi-Fi to the laptop to the construction of a data server building.
“The reality is that a lot of the system will still have impact, whether or not the email is sent,” Dr. Chris Preist, a professor of sustainability and computer systems at the University of Bristol, told the BBC. “Your laptop will still be on, your Wi-Fi will still be on, your home internet connection will still be on, the wider network will still use roughly the same amount of energy even with a reduction in volume. [If you delete an email,] there will be a small saving in the data centre hosting the email, particularly if it allows them to use a few less servers. But the carbon saved will be far, far less than 1g per email.”
Berners-Lee summed it up neatly: “Whilst the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment.”
For further information about why sending emails is not an environmental concern, you can read a study published in 2022 by Quebec researchers. It found that deleting 1,000 emails would only save 5 grams of C02. Meanwhile, using your laptop for the 30 minutes it might take to delete 1,000 emails would emit between 5 and 30 grams of CO2.
Focus on individual climate efforts part of a larger pattern
The Canadian Press’ story is concerning insofar as it falls into a larger pattern. In recent years, news has often focused on how individuals can impact their carbon footprint instead of on the large corporate polluters. Even the term “carbon footprint” is criticized as a method of placing blame on the individual.
“British Petroleum, the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide, hired the public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals,” wrote Mashable’s science editor Mark Kaufman. “It’s here that British Petroleum, or BP, first promoted and soon successfully popularized the term “carbon footprint” in the early aughts. The company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” in 2004 so one could assess how their normal daily life – going to work, buying food, and (gasp) traveling – is largely responsible for heating the globe.”
Even when you use a service that has an environmental impact, Dr. Preist pointed out to the BBC that the companies providing the services “should be designing their systems to deliver services in as energy and resource efficient way as possible.”
That’s not to say there’s nothing you can, or should, do about the environment, though. The BBC reported Dr. Preist said, “consumers should focus their ‘eco-guilt’ on things that make a difference – and not sweat the small stuff.”
“What really makes a difference is buying less kit, and keeping it for longer,” he said. “But even this is small fry compared with your travel, heating your home, and what you eat.”