WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Remote workers can give you a whole list of reasons why they’d like to keep their cameras off during a virtual meeting. From messy homes to a bad case of bed hair, we’ve all had days we’d rather skip the video part of that video chat. Now, a new study finds you can add a really good reason to that list — it’s bad for the environment. Researchers from MIT, Yale, and Purdue University say videoconferencing and streaming high-definition content greatly increases a person’s carbon footprint.
With the coronavirus pandemic shifting all sorts of activities to online-only, it’s no surprise internet usage skyrocketed in 2020. Despite a record drop in global carbon emissions during the year, study authors say the way the internet stores and transfers data still poses a serious concern for the environment.
The study finds just one hour in a video conference or streaming HD shows emits between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide. For comparison, a car burning one gallon of gasoline emits nearly 9,000 grams of carbon dioxide. That hour in a video call also requires two to 12 liters of water and demands a land area the size of an iPad Mini.
Researchers say this is the first study to examine the internet’s impact on water and land footprints, in addition to its carbon emissions.
“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” says Roshanak “Roshi” Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, in a university release.
Holding video chat on standard definition can also reduce carbon footprint
Researchers find that several countries have increased their internet usage by over 20 percent since the pandemic began in March 2020. If that trend holds through 2021, the land footprint of internet usage alone would equal about 71,600 square miles. That’s twice the size of Indiana.
In terms of water, the footprint of all that processing and transmission of data around the world would equal more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The study estimated the carbon, water, and land footprints of each gigabyte of data used on several websites including YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. The team also calculated the impact of online gaming and general web surfing. Just as researchers expected, the more video playing in an app, the greater the environmental impact.
You may be asking, what does a YouTube video have to do with my carbon footprint? Researchers explain that data processing uses up a lot of electricity. Anything that produces electricity also creates a carbon, water, and land footprint.
By turning the video camera off during a video call, an internet user can reduce their footprint by 96 percent. By streaming in standard definition instead of HD, someone watching videos on Hulu or Netflix can reduce their emissions by 86 percent.
“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” lead study author Kaveh Madani from the Yale MacMillan Center explains.
Even before COVID-19 lockdowns sent internet use skyrocketing, the internet’s carbon footprint already accounted for nearly four percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Focusing on carbon footprints can be misleading
The team adds that simply focusing on how each country contributes to reducing carbon emissions doesn’t tell the whole story of carbon pollution.
Although the United States has a carbon footprint which is nine percent higher than the world average, the country’s water footprint is actually 45 percent lower and its land footprint is 58 percent lower.
On the other hand, a country like German has a carbon footprint well below the world average. Despite being recognized as a world leader in renewable energy, researchers find that nation’s energy production creates a land footprint 204 percent higher than the global average.
The team’s estimates come from publicly available data for each platform and country in the study. Although researchers admit their calculations may be a little rough, the results still point to a need to look at all aspects of our environmental footprint — especially on the internet.
“These are the best estimates given the available data. In view of these reported surges, there is a hope now for higher transparency to guide policy,” Nateghi concludes.
The study appears in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.