internet choices
Sustainable Living

How Your Internet Use Choices Help the Planet: 5 Simple Actions


After being overwhelmed by the IPCC Report on climate change, Alison and I wanted to spend some time focusing on personal actions that could help the planet.

We’ve looked at a few areas of our lives so far, such as gardening, our food choices, our energy choices and how we can use our time to help the planet. This week I’m looking at how our internet use choices help the planet.

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internet use choices
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How Data Gets Around the World

Internet use choices such as streaming, searching, emailing – they all seem like they shouldn’t have much of an impact beyond maybe the electricity to run our computer. Somehow I thought that the data I download, upload, and send around the planet kind of floated magically through the air, maybe? I really hadn’t given the mechanics of it a lot of thought.

It wasn’t until (ironically, streaming) Netflix’s Connected “Clouds” episode that I began to understand how our data actually moves — in our physical world, it takes physical resources to move these bits and bytes around the planet.

And though each search or email may not take a lot of energy in and of itself, the volume that occurs is what results in the significant impact on the planet.

Although the energy needed for a single internet search or email is small, approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6% of the global population, now use the internet.

BBC Future

Resources and energy are required to manufacture, distribute, and maintain the cables that carry the signals, while energy is required to power our devices and move the impulses along vast networks of fibre-optic cables.

It is likely many of us don’t understand the magnitude of energy consumption of the internet, and the combined impact that many individual users completing many small actions has on that underlying, often unseen energy usage. I certainly didn’t!

Internet use choices
Source: Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay

How Internet Use Choices Impact Our Carbon Footprint

Two weeks ago we looked at how our energy use impacts our carbon footprint, and this is directly linked to how our internet use impacts our carbon footprint. Various countries around the world rely more or less on fossil fuels to generate electricity. Thus the carbon footprint of the energy used to power the internet is dependent on the underlying method of generation of electricity in a region. If a country relies heavily on fossil fuel power plants then the internet usage there will result in more greenhouse gas generation for the same activities that may generate less emissions in a country with cleaner energy sources.

To store and transmit all of the data powering the internet, data centers consume enough electricity to account for 1 percent of global energy demand — which is more than the total consumption for many countries.

MIT Energy Initiative

Though we can work toward cleaner power generation collectively, there are some very simple and inexpensive changes that can be made to reduce our personal internet use impact!

Five Simple But Impactful Personal Internet Use Choices

1) Turn off your video in meetings, where possible

Just what we all need – an excuse not to do your make-up, leave on the sweats, and keep the camera off for your next videoconference!

One hour of streaming or videoconferencing can emit between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, depending on the service. By comparison, a car produces about 8,887 grams from burning one gallon of gasoline. That hour also requires 2-12 liters of water and a land area about the size of an iPad Mini. Those hours add up in our daily lives with all the time we’re spending on video — and so does the associated environmental footprint.

MIT Energy Initiative

2) Consider carbon offsets

According to Carbon Offset Guide “A carbon offset broadly refers to a reduction in GHG emissions – or an increase in carbon storage (e.g., through land restoration or the planting of trees) – that is used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere.”  

A Sustainably Simple Life made the switch to GreenGeeks partially because they use various offsets to cover off the energy use of their operations. Want to try it out for yourself? Click on our affiiliate link below!

If you’ve considered working towards netting out some of your greenhouse gas emissions, check out Plant:Grove or other companies that can facilitate this! There are many plans for planting trees and offsetting emissions.

3) Stream in lower quality

I had no idea that changing the video quality of streaming could result in approximately 25 times less emissions! This is a simple switch that I’ll be implementing at home.

A streaming service’s video quality is one of the largest determinants of its environmental footprint. Currently, the default for many services is high-definition, putting the onus on the user to reduce the quality of their video in order to improve their footprint. Not many people will be interested in reducing their video quality, especially if the benefits of this action are not well known.

MIT Energy Initiative

4) Send less email and unsubscribe from junk email and mailing lists

There are several simple actions we can take to reduce the impact of our communications, such as:

  • Unsubscribing from mailing lists we no longer read
  • Choosing to send links to documents instead of attachments in emails
  • Not sending emails to multiple recipients, where possible

By simply stopping unnecessary niceties such as “thank you” emails we could collectively save a lot of carbon emissions. If every adult in the UK sent one less “thank you” email, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year – the equivalent to taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

BBC Future
internet use choices
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

5) Use your devices for longer

Though it’s tempting to get the latest and greatest technology, this can actually impact your overall carbon footprint in a measurable way! According to BBC Future, “As an individual, simply upgrading our equipment less often is one way of cutting the carbon footprint of our digital technology. The greenhouse gases emitted while manufacturing and transporting these devices can make up a considerable portion of the lifetime emissions from a piece of electronics.”

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  • Jaya Avendel

    It is stunning to me how quickly people change their device models. I do not have a phone so I have never had to think about upgrading, and the phone my mother has is an old one her mother gave her when she upgraded a couple years ago.

    We also have very bad internet where we live in the mountains as we have only a satellite connection and, as such, rarely stream shows. When we do, we put it in the lowest quality possible. Most of our entertainment comes on DVD’s. 🙂

    I did not know the internet impacted the environment in the ways you share, so I am delighted to have read this, learned from it, and come away glad that we are already using the internet fairly responsibly! Since there is always a little more I feel I can do, I look forward to thinking about ways I can further improve.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • A Sustainably Simple Life

      Thank you Jaya! That’s great to hear that you’re already doing quite a bit for responsibly using the internet. I’m always shocked at how fast devices are replaced and become obsolete too. I truly wish planned obsolescence was not a thing.

  • Molly @ Transatlantic Notes

    This was really eye-opening and it just goes to show how every part of our lives (and the choices we make) has an impact on the climate. It is unavoidable now that we need to make sure the brands, companies, organizations and industries we support as consumers are doing all they can to become boldly eco-friendly. Thanks for this info!

  • Ruth| Ruthiee loves Glamour

    This is such an informative post. I honestly never knew that our internet use has an effect on the environment. I use the internet all the time. I use it for research for school work, entertainment, to find out the happenings around the world and a lot more! I definitely have to reduce my use of the internet. Thank you for sharing x

  • Nyxinked

    I honestly had no idea about the majority of this, especially the streaming of video and sending emails. This has really opened my eyes and makes me want to go and clear out all the junk from my email. In fact, that’s tonights goal.

  • Karalee

    I never considered how internet use impacts the climate so this is such an insightful post. When I had online classes, I had a strict teacher who ALWAYS made us have our camera ons & she would yell at you if you had yours off…luckily I have a new teacher & classes are in person again
    I also didn’t know that streaming in high quality released more carbon emissions.

  • Michelle (Boomer Eco Crusader)

    It’s funny how people have embraced digital as the greener option without giving any thought to its impact. I have unsubscribed from so many emails, and I rarely turn my video on in internal meetings at work.

    I also tend to keep my devices for as long as they work. When I’m done with them, I find an e-recycling drive to donate them to.

    • A Sustainably Simple Life

      That’s an interesting point, Michelle. We really are sold on the idea that online is greener, which is true to a point, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone acknowledge what the environmental impact of online is.

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!