Turning off your camera on a Zoom call helps save the Earth

Data storage and transmission emits 97m tonnes carbon dioxide a year, roughly equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Sweden and Finland

In 2020 pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment has resulted in a record drop in global carbon emissions. But as it seems, the boom of internet data being stored and transferred around the world has also got a significant environmental impact, a new study shows. The good news is that If you often find yourself in Zoom meetings in would rather leave your camera off, you now have a great excuse to do so: it could save the Earth!

The study supported by the Purdue Climate Change Research Centre has revealed that one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits up to 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide (for comparison, approximately three litres of petrol burned from a car emits about 8887 grams of carbon dioxide), needs up to 12 liters of water, and requires a piece of land the size of an iPad Mini. But if you turn your camera off during a web call, that can reduce carbon footprints by 96%. 

In the new paper titled “The overlooked environmental footprint of increasing Internet use” and published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, the scientists also estimated that doing so for 15 hour-long meetings every week would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 9.4 kilograms per month. If one million Zoom users did this, they would save 9,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of coal-powered energy used by a city of 36,000 in that same month!

Meanwhile, popular streaming services such as Youtube, Netflix or Hulu require 7 GB per hour of streaming in high video quality (Ultra HD or 4k) which translates to a carbon footprint of 441 g CO2e/hr. Streaming videos at this quality for four hours a day would result in a monthly carbon footprint of 53 kg CO2e. But streaming content in standard definition rather can bring an 86% reduction.

The study, conducted by researchers from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the first to analyse the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure, in addition to carbon footprints. In particular, the researchers estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. Findings revealed that the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints.

This is happening, because data processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage.

“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,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study, which gathers data for Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the UK and the US.

The finding comes as a number of countries have reported at least a 20% increase in internet traffic since March. As a result, we can now say that taking the median carbon footprint for the world (32 g CO2e per GB), data storage and transmission emit 97 million tonnes of CO2e a year - roughly equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Sweden and Finland combined.

Similarly, the median global water footprint of Internet use is estimated to be 2.6 trillion litres of water or the equivalent of filling over 1 million Olympic-size swimming pools. Finally, the median land footprint of Internet use is approximately 3,400 square kilometres of land, representing the combined size of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and New York City.

If the trend persists through the end of 2021, this increased internet use would require a forest of about 18,5443 square kilometres to sequester the emitted carbon (a Los Angeles-sized piece of land, to be exact). The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would be enough to fill more than 300,000 additional Olympic-size swimming pools.

“Society at large should recognise the power of collective action in reducing the environmental footprint of the Internet to avoid paving an irreversible path to an unsustainable digital world,” says the paper as it calls for small sacrifices such as the aforementioned turning off a video during a virtual meeting, reducing the quality of streaming services, decreasing gaming time, limiting time on social media, deleting emails and unnecessary content on the cloud-based storage services, or unsubscribing from email lists."

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