Digital carbon footprint: The impact of our online activity


It's something intangible, but have you ever wondered how much carbon emissions are generated by online activity? 

Most of our communications, documents and pictures are now digitalized. It can be considered a good thing from an environmental point of view: less mails means less wasted paper and less plasticized envelops. Easier communication can also lead to less commute to work with a surge of WFH (thanks, Covid…) 

But have you ever thought about how much sending and storing emails, SMS or photos could impact your carbon footprint? Because we can’t physically see or touch the data that we’re sending and receiving all day long, doesn’t mean it’s impactless.

Each year, internet releases around 300 million tonnes of CO2. Whenever you send an email, it transits or is saved in a datacenter. Those centers require massive use of energy, both for powering the machines and for the air conditioning needed to keep the servers from overheating. 

Almost everything we do online leaves a trace. There is a name for it: it’s our digital carbon footprint. We are not saying that digitalization is bad and that we need to stop. It’s probably still better for many reasons. But we can start to be a little more conscious about our usage.



According to Google itself, almost 4 millions search requests are launched every minutes. Each of them uses about 0.0003 kWh. Therefore two hundred searches adds up to roughly. the same amount of energy needed to iron a shirt.

Consider using search engine like Ecosia, who will help offset this footprint by reversing deforestation, for example. 


A typical year of incoming emails for a single person, including sending, filtering and reading electronic messages – creates a carbon footprint of around 135kg. That's equivalent to driving 200 miles in an average car…

What could you do personally? 

Reduce the size of emails you send by lowering the resolution of pictures and compressing documents. Adopt lighter file formats or replace the attachments with a hyperlink.

You can also regularly clean your mailing lists and unsubscribe from newsletters that you never read (Many apps help you do it, like Unlistr or

If like many of us, you’re kinda stuck at home, maybe now is a good time to clear a bit all your old emails that are no longer necessary. A French telecom company estimated that if 100,000 people deleted 50 old emails, it would save as much energy as turning off 2.7 billion light bulbs for 1 hour (study link). Crazy right? 



Ok, we don’t want to ruin your Netflix binge. Your sanity, especially now, might survive on watching streaming series. But if you ever feel doing something else, pick up a book.



The amount of energy used for maintaining and running the cloud storage has its environmental impact too. The data centers contain thousands of servers, which must be powered 24/7 to ensure continuous access to data. On top of that, when data is stored, it is usually duplicated in different servers. Wondering why? It ensures a backup in the event of a loss of data during a breakdown for example.

Many Internet companies have begun to take steps to greenify their cloud by using renewable energies to power their centers. But the greenest energy is the one not used.

What can you do at your personal level? Delete old Facebook posts, tweets or pictures. Then go through your documents and pictures files. Most are probably not useful anymore and could be let go of. Think about it like doing a little “Marie Kondo cleaning” of your cloud.



So yes, even if we can’t see it, those data pollute because they need to be stored. Small actions such as sorting and deleting your emails/photos can lower the carbon footprint. Now is probably the best time to do it.



Written by Pauline Judicq-Salembier

Wednesday 22.04.20


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