December 6, 2022

The Environmental Impact of Digital Activity

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

Do you know the amount of energy you spend when browsing the internet? What is the environmental impact of your web use? What are some strategies you can adopt to reduce it?

Digital pollution is the pollution produced by new technologies.

It can be generated by the manufacturing of digital tools that causes chemical contamination. The rapid obsolescence of our devices creates a mountain of electronic waste.

Therefore, digital pollution is also generated by data consumption (downloading, video streaming, etc.) resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the biggest percentage of digital pollution is related to the manufacturing of digital tools, we can have a small impact on the remaining percentage related to our data consumption.

Ecoist Club, a mobile application created in Quebec, allows us to learn more about digital pollution and offers solutions to implement digital sobriety. Ecoist Club indicates the gas emissions associated with our daily actions, on different levels. For example, “if I spend one hour per week streaming videos in HD using my mobile cellular network, my GHG impact is of 6,87 kg of CO2/year” (Ecoist Club).

Calculate your digital energy consumption

Carbonalyser is a digital footprint calculator offered as an internet add-on or a mobile application [in French]. It was created by The Shift Project to make people aware of the electrical energy used by their web activity and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated. Some equivalent activities are given based on other daily actions, such as charging a phone or making a car trip.

I tested the tool to get a better idea of my energy consumption. To do so, I divided my experiment into 2 steps:

  1. I searched the internet for 5 hours. I had 11 webpage tabs and 1 YouTube tab open.
  2. Then, I left these tabs open all night long (computer set to sleep mode). My objective was to see the difference in consumption when we are active or inactive.

Here are the results:

Screenshot of the application Carbonalyser illustrating the energy consumption for a search on the internet for 5 hours. The research generated 42 g of CO2, which equals 5 charged smartphones and a 0,191 km long trip by car.

The 5-hour active research generated 42 g of CO2.

Screenshot of the Application Carbonalyser illustrating the energy consumption for a search on the internet for 5 hours and nearly 20 hours of inactivity. The research generated 102 g of CO2, which equals 12 charged smartphones and a 0,464 km long trip by car.

After nearly 20 hours of inactivity, the equivalent of an additional 102 g of CO2 was generated. The total now equals 144 g of CO2.

What about you? What are your results?

Strategies to reduce your energy consumption

Several strategies can be put into place to reduce our energy consumption. It doesn’t mean we need to eliminate technology from our life, but analyze how it is being used.

Here are some strategies to reduce digital pollution related to our pedagogical practices:

  • Choose the right digital tool by evaluating its educational relevance and its added value. For example:
    • Why should we use an interactive whiteboard if this tool is not a pedagogical asset to the students?
    • Is it necessary to import an existing PowerPoint into a Genially presentation?
  • Keep using paper: it’s still an option! There is no need to switch everything to digital technology. Some activities work quite well on paper if the digital technology does not bring a pedagogical added value. For example:
    • Students can create a mind map on paper and then upload it on the course website.
  • Reduce the use of videos. For example:
    • Choose audio files whenever possible.
    • Do not make your students turn on their camera during an online class or meeting.
    • Do not broadcast a video on the students’ individual screen if it’s possible to watch it on the interactive whiteboard.

Here are some strategies to reduce digital pollution on a personal level:

  • Sort out your online and offline files.
    • Delete your unused files (obsolete PDFs, multimedia files in triplicate, etc.) and empty the recycle bin.
      • The same principle applies to your mailbox (sort out and delete emails).
    • Use cloud storage only when necessary. Use the computer’s hard drive or an external hard drive to store your files.
    • While collaborating, choose a shared document instead of many copies of the same document.
  • Rethink your emails.
    • Given an appropriate context, choose a more energy-efficient way of communication, such as instant messaging.
    • Do not send large files as email attachments or use a file compressor website.
    • Do not choose the option “Reply all” when it’s not necessary. (If the mailing list includes 50 people, it is equivalent to sending 50 emails!)
    • Have an eco-friendly signature by not adding a picture.
    • Delete your unused email mailboxes. They keep receiving emails.
  • Change the way you use the internet.
    • Close unused windows and tabs.
    • Use Wi-Fi or a wired connection. It uses less data than the cellular network.
    • Use search engines as little as possible. Access the site directly by typing the name of the site in the address bar or by using your bookmarks. Choose an eco-friendly search engine such as Ecosia.
  • Reduce unnecessary energy-consuming usage.
    • Turn off your device instead of simply setting it to sleep mode.
    • Do not purchase a new device as soon as a new model is out on the market.
    • Use the energy-saving mode on your device.

What do you think of these strategies? Are you already doing your part?

For more information

The Shift Project. (2018). “Lean ICT: Towards Digital Sobriety”: our new report on the environmental impact of ICT.

The Shift Project. (2019). “Climate Crisis: The Unsustainable Use of Online Video”: our new report on the environmental impact of ICT.  

The Shift Project. (n.d.). “Carbonalyser”: The Browser Extension which Reveals the Climate Impact of Internet Navigation

Hydro-Québec. Reducing digital pollution.

Rioux, M. (2022). Become aware of your digital footprint (and go into solution mode). École branchée.

Beasse, S. (2021). 9 Ways to Reduce Your Digital Pollution. Plank Design.

About the author

Lisa-Marie Gauthier

Lisa-Marie is a technopedagogical advisor and holds a master’s degree in Educational Technology from Université Laval. Her fields of interest include educational design and the discovery of new technological tools. She also worked for 5 years in the field of elementary and preschool education.

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Alexandre Enkerli
8 December 2022 15h45