Let’s clean the clouds!

There is one type of cloud that remains undetectable even for the most experienced meteorologists: a data cloud.

4 min read


Science & Nature Blog


Ksenia Pisera

Journalist, popularizer of knowledge about environmental and climate protection


There is one type of cloud that remains undetectable even for the most experienced meteorologists: a data cloud. This is the virtual space where we upload all our holiday photos, archive messages, and save videos to watch them later, among other things. But did you know that by uploading data to the cloud there is something else we are sending there besides bits of information? Learn more about the digital carbon footprint below.

The internet and countless digital services have become part of our lives. The answer to any question can be found within seconds, we attend concerts without leaving our homes, and we can chat with friends from antipodal points at any time. Great scientific discoveries, cultural breakthroughs, and million-dollar transactions also happen online – and many of them have happened directly because of the internet. While all this data and information seem to hover in the air – almost like clouds – it is all actually quite tangible.

Every search engine query, every email sent, every online video watched generates CO2 emissions, in the same real-life way as driving a car or having a charcoal barbecue. But unlike these more personal, point source emissions, there is a question of who is accountable for the carbon footprint of digital services. Data centers with massive infrastructure surely must take some responsibility, but there are also emissions that we produce locally, such as those associated with using electricity (at least in areas that do not utilize renewable electricity sources). It is estimated that Internet activity alone is responsible for 830 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted each year. That is about 2% of all global emissions, roughly the same as the entire airline industry.

This is the digital carbon footprint.

It might not seem tangible, but there are some ways of looking at it that can help make it seem more real. For example, searching for two keywords using a search engine will cause around seven grams of CO2 emissions, which is roughly the equivalent of boiling water for tea (depending on your source of energy). One email sent without an attachment creates about four grams of carbon dioxide emissions, and a message with an attachment creates about 50. By comparison, a small car emits about 130 grams of CO2 per kilometer. A report by The Shift Project shows that global video streaming sends as much CO2 to the atmosphere each year as the entire country of Spain!

Do you feel conflicted now about sending an email to your aunt with photos from your trip? Don’t worry – we have good news, too. By making our digital carbon footprint measurable, we can use the internet more consciously and reduce unnecessary emissions! Here are some ideas on how to surf more eco-friendly:

  • Clean up your inboxDo you really read every advertisement that comes into your inbox? By switching off and unsubscribing to unnecessary newsletters, you’ll cut down on unnecessary emails – and the resulting CO2 emissions. There is also a good chance that you won’t need emails from years ago either. It’s worth going through and deleting them so they don’t take up server space and increase data consumption.
  • Save emailsYou can remove the correspondence history from the body of an email before sending it. Send attachments using services that will remove them from the web for good after a few days, rather than storing them indefinitely. Also, consider limiting short, polite emails, such as “thank you” or “noted.”
  • Use disappearing messagesPopular instant messengers already offer this feature for different reasons – but this is also another way to save some internet data.
  • Listen moreOnline movie streaming is one of the biggest contributors to the digital carbon footprint. Less carbon dioxide will be emitted if you choose an audiobook.

Although it likely seems that a few clicks on the Internet won’t change much, big changes can begin with these small steps. After just one day of eco-attentive surfing, you can reduce several hundred grams of CO2. Multiply that by 30 and within a month you can reduce several kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions without much effort.

Now that’s news worth sharing with all your friends.