O'Vert Dose: How much does sending an e-mail pollute the environment?

From carbon emissions to unnecessary plastic waste, we realize that many things harm the environment. But could emails be added to this list?

The French energy regulator, RTE, seems to think so, as they have asked companies to reduce the use of their emails in a bid to reduce energy consumption. Are emails really harmful to the environment.

Surely you have an email

Most of us have an email account. In fact, many of us have several to our name. According to technology research specialists Radicati, there were nearly 2.6 billion email users worldwide in 2015, with an average of 1.7 accounts per user. Every day, these users collectively send and receive a total of more than 205 billion emails. And by 2019, that number is expected to rise to more than 246 billion.

It is clear that we use email in abundance. And due to this abundance, even a small environmental impact would surely accrue. But how much do they contribute to the mass environmental problems we face? In his book “How Bad are Bananas?” The Carbon Footprint of Everything,” Mike Berners-Lee quantifies their impact on the environment by estimating the carbon footprint of each email. And, yes, he is the brother of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

The energy of an email

According to Berners-Lee, a normal email has a carbon footprint of 4g. For unsolicited e-mails (spam), because they are automatically sent to mailing lists, the average is much lower: 0.3 g of CO2. At the other end of the scale, emails with large attachments can have a carbon footprint of 50 grams. These totals are made up of the energy used by computers and data centers to send, filter and open messages.

According to Berners-Lee, incoming mail adds 300 pounds to each user’s carbon footprint. This equates to approximately 200 miles driven by an average car. More generally, data centers contributed about 130 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2010, or 0.25% of all emissions that year. And he predicts that by 2020, that figure will rise to more than 250 million tons.

Fewer emails, fewer shows

It is clear that sending and receiving e-mails generates considerable emissions. While asking people to cut email from their lives isn’t realistic, simply reducing the amount of email you send could significantly reduce the total. Right now, however, we are seeing increased levels of greenhouse gases around the world. Greenhouse gas fluxes have been discovered in the Arctic that are enhanced by even slight increases in temperature, as shown in the article “Enhanced Nitrous Oxide Emissions Found in Field Warming Experiment in the Arctic”.

The carbon footprint of activities is highly dependent on the companies you use, as different companies source energy in different ways. Greenpeace and other environmental activists have long encouraged consumers to consider the environmental effects of their use of technology.

What can make the difference?

Rather than worrying about the relatively small impact of email, some researchers suggest looking at services like game and video streaming and cloud storage, which have a much bigger impact.

But the subject is extremely complex, and there is debate about how the estimates should be calculated – and who should be responsible for them.

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