With remote work and distance learning on the rise, emails have come to play an even bigger role in our daily lives. Now more than ever, we seem to rely on email to coordinate educational activities, promote virtual events, connect with colleagues and friends and, of course, manage work projects.
So far, the proliferation of electronic communication has elicited mixed responses, from dreams of achieving elusive inbox zero status to pleas for email debt forgiveness. For others, emails have come to represent something else altogether: a source of anxiety.
Global News reports that, pre-covid, the average office worker received 120 emails per day. A recent study similarly found that processing emails is the most time-consuming activity for the average worker, taking “up to a third of our working hours each day”. It is no surprise, then, that for more and more of us contending with our inbox has become a central preoccupation.
If not tended to promptly, cluttered inboxes can lead to frustration, loss of productivity, and a sense of being perpetually behind on work. But did you know that emails are also a significant source of carbon emissions? In this post, we unpack the hidden costs of emails on the planet and discuss what organizations can do to reduce their footprint.
The Carbon Footprint of Digital Infrastructure
“Stop! Don’t send that email. Don’t offer thanks or send a jokey message. If you do, you will add to your carbon footprint. Be rude, say nothing–and save the planet!” So opened a recent article by The Guardian on the little-known carbon cost of sending an email.
The article cites a UK-based study that found that if every adult in the country sent one fewer thank you message a day then we would save more than 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to over 81,000 flights from London to Madrid––or taking more than 3,000 diesel cars off the road. (That’s a lot of cars!)
“Wait!”, you may ask. “Aren’t emails supposed to be light on the planet?” The answer, in large part, is found in the cloud. While it’s true that digital infrastructure allows us to save significant resources in some areas, it’s also true that what is needed to sustain our appetite for bytes and data comes at a significant environmental cost. To rely on the cloud, we must first rely on things like data centers and cables, which require electricity and other valuable resources to be built, maintained, and even cooled.
Image Credit: ClimateCare.
As more and more people gain access to the internet, store their data in the cloud, and acquire tech gadgets, companies like Apple are thinking seriously about carbon neutrality. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, recently tweeted that “by 2030, Apple’s entire business will be carbon neutral—from supply chain to the power you use in every device we make. The planet we share can’t wait, and we want to be a ripple in the pond that creates a much larger change”.
At the same time, the majority of our digital infrastructure is still largely powered from the burning of fossil fuels. Which is how, the BBC explains, “the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions”––a number similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally.
Clearly, there are big and important changes that need to be made in the future of our digital infrastructure. Thinking about the scale of the change required can feel out of reach for the average online user interested in supporting the shift towards sustainability. That said, understanding what’s behind our data usage can be a powerful entry point for reducing our online carbon footprint and provides an accessible way to start making a difference.
The Carbon Cost of an Email
The Carbon Literacy Project relied on data reported in Mike Berners-Lee’s book, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, to calculate the average carbon footprint of common types of emails. (Fun fact: Mike Berners-Lee is the brother of Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the world wide web!) Their article, The Carbon Cost of an Email, breaks down the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) produced by common forms of electronic messages this way:
An average spam email: 0.3 g CO2e
A standard email: 4 g CO2e
An email with “long and tiresome attachments”: 50 g CO2e
This means that one years’ worth of emails received equals approximately 0.6 tonnes CO2e. “To put this into perspective”, they write, “the total yearly carbon footprint of the average person living in India is approx 1.5 tonnes CO2e”.
For individuals in workplaces, these figures are even higher. According to Berners-Lee, a typical business user creates 135kg CO2e from sending emails every year––which, the BBC explains, is the equivalent of driving 200 miles in a family car.
Image Credit: ClimateCare.
If these figures are leaving you wanting to do something about the surprising carbon cost of email communication, in the next section we offer some ways to get started greening your inbox.
Tips for Keeping Your Inbox Clean & Green
Keep it small:
The Carbon Literacy Project recommends reducing the size of emails by lowering the resolution of files, compressing images, and privileging hyperlinks over attachments. This helps keep storage needs smaller, which means less data will need to be stored by far-away servers. Make sure to also check your emails before sending them to avoid follow-up messages with clarifications or forgotten information.
Pro Tip: If you need to send an attachment, tools like Small PDF will help make your digital documents smaller. For multimedia files, try TinyPNG to compress photos in multiple formats and Clideo to compress video.
Keep it short:
In the last several years, a small movement and philosophy has formed around the advantages of sending shorter messages. A lighter email body is a great way to manage inbox overflow and save writers and readers alike valuable time.
Pro Tip: Five Sentences helps communicate your personal policy of shortness with a friendly message that can be copied/pasted in your email signature to alert others to your new style of response.
If you are part of list-serves, newsletters, and other group communications, make sure you are keeping your subscriptions up to date to avoid receiving unwanted messages. According to estimates by antispam service Cleanfox, the average user receives 2,850 unwanted emails every year from subscriptions, which are responsible for 28.5kg CO2e.
Pro Tip: Services like Cleanfox and Unroll.me will automatically scan the internet to identify newsletters and subscriptions associated with your email address, allowing you to unsubscribe with one click from the ones you don’t want to keep.
Delete read messages:
Make it a habit to read messages promptly, then delete the ones you do not need to archive right away. Doing so will mean no longer storing information in your inbox, which means reducing your data storage needs. If you want to take this concept one step further, you can invest some time in performing an audit of your past emails and folders to delete messages you no longer need to keep.
Pro Tip: Mailstrom is a tool that identifies bundles of related mail and makes it easy for you to act on them as a group. The service lets you batch tens, hundreds or thousands of emails at once according to the organizational style that best suits your needs. It also offers tips, hacks and best practices to manage your inbox successfully.
Organize your inbox:
If your inbox doubles as a personal to-do list of sorts, use labels, filters, folders, and categories to keep your inbox organized. This will help identify action items more quickly and makes it easier to do periodic purges and audits.
Pro Tip: Sortd is a free app for Gmail that helps you assign categories such as ‘to do,’ ‘in progress,’ and ‘done’ to your inbox emails. You can also use platforms such as Asana to better manage your to-do lists.
Avoid Unnecessary Emails:
Before sending an email, ask yourself if it is really needed. Can the information be texted instead? Is your organization's next newsletter necessary or will it end up being considered just another piece of spam by somebody else? Are your contact lists up to date, so no unwanted emails are accidentally sent out to old subscribers? Taking some time to consider the value of outgoing emails will help both sender and receiver use valuable digital and physical resources more responsibly.
Pro Tip: Email is not the only significant source of CO2e. So is social media and anything else we rely on the cloud to store or stream. To start exploring a lighter digital footprint outside of email, take a look at your app settings. Many services like WhatsApp let you manage your storage data with great customization, allowing you to decide which multimedia items you want to delete or keep. Learn how to free up space on WhatsApp in this How to Geek tutorial as a start!
If you would like to explore other ways to reduce your digital carbon footprint beyond email, here are some resources to support your efforts:
- Learn how to calculate your organization’s footprint by reading these great recommendations curated by Mailchimp.
- If you’re curious about your organization’s webpage and its footprint, Website Carbon Calculator tells you how your site compares to the rest of the internet and offers examples of designs that are planet-friendly.
- Curious about digital energy efficiency? Check out 17 ways to make your website more energy efficient.
- Want to reconsider your relationship to online communications and social media? Check out the book Digital Minimalism, which offers suggestions for a 30-day ‘digital declutter’, and How to Break Up With Your Phone.
- Learn about hands-on and helpful ways to lower your carbon footprint in this New York Times article.
- To learn more about what’s behind the carbon cost of our digital infrastructure, check out Why Your Internet Habits Are Not as Clean as You Think and the infographic The Carbon Footprint of the Internet.