Don’t fret, I don’t want to take away your Netflix. In the pandemic era, we have so few nice things left that it seems vitally important to climb into the cozy cocoon of the Baby-sitters Club reboot now and again. But one of the core philosophies of this newsletter is that it’s important that we understand the costs of the things we do every day so we can make informed choices that might actually do some good in the world.
When we’re looking at physical impacts on the environment, the internet can seem refreshingly intangible and innocent — it’s not spewing visible exhaust like a car or a factory, and you never have to throw it out like the piles of DVDs and CDs of someone who Marie Kondo’d through isolation. The cloud sounds downright breezy.
But sadly every Instagram scroll, album stream, order to a robot servant, or compulsive weather check (if you’re me, or someone over 60) has an environmental cost. In fact, the information and communication technologies sector is responsible for around 2–3% of global emissions: that’s a bit more than the entire aviation industry. (I know, the internet hasn’t seemed so threatening since the 1995 Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. I couldn’t resist including the trailer, because it is well worth the carbon to get a glimpse of the menace of cutting-edge 1995 technology.)
2–3% of emissions might seem like a small part of the pie, but it’s growing exponentially as everything gets higher resolution, smarter, data-richer. By 2040 we could be at 14%. The average web page is now 3 MB to load, which, journalist Tatiana Schlossberg notes in Inconspicuous Consumption, “is larger than the entire PC game Doom from the 1990s.” We’re also using the internet differently. Video streaming accounted for nearly two-thirds of online traffic in 2015, and it’s only rising. And yes, we’re not producing or shipping nearly so many DVDs as a decade ago, but we now stream so much more content we’re into “rebound effect” territory: when something gets more efficient, we use it more, cancelling out any green gains.
Why do our Tik-Toks and cat videos take such a toll on the planet? Mostly because the internet depends on massive networks and energy-guzzling-data centres. These centres not only need power to run but to keep them movie-theatre cold. The impact of these operations depends a lot on where they are and where their energy comes from. Some companies have made commitments to use a certain percentage of renewable energy, but if your data centre is located in, say, Virginia, a lot of regular energy is coming from coal, and many centres have backup generators that run on dirty diesel. Luckily data centres got 1.5x more efficient over the last decade. (Google’s got 2.25 better.)
Energy is a huge cost for these companies, and it pays off for them to look for efficiencies. And they have been stepping up, at least when it comes to emissions: Google claims to have been carbon neutral since 2008; Apple uses 100% renewable energy in its offices, stores, and data centres; Facebook is supposed to hit all renewable energy this year; Amazon says it’ll be carbon neutral by 2040; and Microsoft says it’ll remove all of its historical carbon emissions dating back to 1975 from the atmosphere by 2050. But as smart cars and AI toilets and all kinds of data-heavy wonders sit just over the horizon, the rebound effect looms.
Now no one is asking you to give up the internet (how would you read this newsletter, after all?) or go back to The Net–era dial-up. But let’s look for some easy wins, so we don’t have to feel guilty about sometimes letting our cats watch YouTube.
Chilling our Netflix
Updated with new research, September 2021
We stream like we breathe, constantly and without thinking. Podcasts, Spotify playlists, YouTube tutorials, Netflix in the background. And while no one show is going to put Miami underwater, those plays add up. When I originally wrote about this, I used data from a Save on Energy study, but since then, research by George Kamiya, an analyst at the International Energy Agency, has found those numbers were way too high. Here’s what he found the carbon emissions would be for 30 minutes of watching Netflix. (Look at the IEA studies vs. Save on Energy)
I love that he’s included the impact of driving the car 5 km: watching a whole season of Top Gear would have less impact than driving to the grocery store.
These numbers aren’t absolute: they also depend on the kind of energy that’s being used (hydro vs. coal, for example), the device the show are watched on (smartphones are way more efficient that your theatre-style screen), etc. Even if those numbers are lower than we thought, why not lower our impact without missing the next season of Killing Eve? (Because that is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.) Here’s how:
Ask yourself if you need everything to be highest def. Personally, I hate the new 4K TVs that show you every pore and pimple on actors — where’s the magic of cinema? (she asks in a Jenna Maroney voice). In your Netflix account, you can change your settings to use less data: low uses 0.3 GB/hr, versus 3 GB/hr in HD — 10x more! (I’m trying medium, 0.7 GB/hr, and it looks totally fine!) You can also adjust your Spotify and iTunes playback settings. In YouTube, choose the lowest resolution your eyeballs can tolerate, but it has to be done video by video, so probably only important if you’re going to hunker down and watch the entire 2006 Chicks documentary. (Just me?)
Since downloading once and streaming use about the same amount of data, download the things you use often. If your kid needs regular doses of Frozen, download it once rather than streaming it daily. And if you’ll be listening to, say, the new Taylor Swift album obsessively, add it to your library. Remember, my phone is a potato with 32 GB of mostly occupied memory, so if I can do it, you can.
Or go retro: bust out that record player, listen to the non-internet radio, pop in a DVD, read a book or choose another offline activity, which might take a little more effort at first, but will be more restorative than a brain-liquefying Netflix binge.
Though Google claims carbon neutrality, I’ve switched to Ecosia, a more than carbon-neutral search engine that uses ad income to plant a native tree (responsibly, in coordination with community groups) for every 45 searches or so. Not long ago, they passed 100 million trees planted, and I watched their celebratory video and felt a little emotional. (They greened a DESERT, you guys.) Ecosia also doesn’t sell your data, which feels almost radical. You can use the app on your phone, or download a browser extension in a jiffy. Just going about my business, I’ve planted 160 native trees. It also means that all the searches I perform for this newsletter (A LOT) are more than carbon neutral.
Edit your archives
We’re all digital hoarders without even knowing it. Email accounts filled with a mix of precious love letters and Gap sales from 2008 (responsible for between 0.3 g and 50 g CO2 each when they were sent, and using more carbon to be stored), thousands of photos trying to get just the right angle/light/smize, online accounts on countless platforms. In the grand scheme of things, these are still small potatoes, so don’t agonize over it or spend hours parsing every frame of every photo shoot, but there are a few ways we can easily reduce our digital real estate.
Clean out your promotions and socials folders. Select all —> delete, carried out whenever you think of it. Less than a minute’s work, nothing lost that’s worth melting icebergs over. (I even support deleting old FMFP emails, because while they are packed with Earth-saving goodness, they also exist on the World Wide Web.)
Unsubscribe. If I’m getting emails I’m not opening, I try to take the second to unsubscribe or change my notification settings. Less inbox clutter, no temptation to just have a quick little look at the Anthropologie summer sale. (And not buying an overpriced muumuu you don’t need is the biggest win of all.)
Curate your photos. Every so often, when I’m itching for a second-screen activity, I’ll take a quick browse through the photos on my phone and skim some of the crud off the surface (screenshots, doubles from iPhones HDR mode, etc.) that I don’t need the internet permanently babysitting.
Store smarter. While a lot of us use digital backups, you could also store some or all of your photos on a hard drive rather than in the Cloud, though then you’ll have to transfer these across devices over time. If you are storing online, consider whether you need photos stored at the highest quality. I currently use Google Photos for my backup, but I use the free option, where photos are stored at “high quality” rather than “original quality.” I’ve been happy with it, and they still print in high quality up to 24” x 16”.
This week I haven’t mentioned the resource footprint of your actual devices, because we’ve already been there! Find my newsy on getting smarter about your smartphones and other tech here.
And a small update on the hardware front: Apple has just announced that their entire supply chain will be carbon neutral by 2030. (Of course there’s still negative environmental impacts in mining and associated pollution, and using the devices still has an environmental cost, as we’ve seen.)
Wins of the Week
“Let’s analyze our consumption as an environmental and anti-racist act. The future of a just and green planet relies on every single person, particularly those with access to resources, to take action that calls for larger societal changes.” — Chante Harris, in the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter
Last week I wanted to hear what the men are up to, so this week I doff my hat to:
Jordan, who led the charge on procuring and installing the appropriate LED light bulbs.
David, who got all the necessary materials and installed a rain barrel to water the garden.
John has reduced his lawn cutting by half (and he has a lot of lawn) and committed to only watering the flower beds.
Please reach out, regardless of your gender, and share the good that you’re making in this world. It’s worth the carbon cost of the email, I swear.
Until next week!
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