The Overlooked Digital Ecological Footprint
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
Skype, WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other video conferencing platforms have more meaning in our lives than they did before the pandemic. A joint study from Purdue, Yale, and MIT revealed that since March of 2020, several countries have seen an increase of 20% in internet traffic. Although working from home saves an enormous amount of resources, we should still be informed about the environmental impact of these new practices. With much more reliance on technology, it begs the question of what resources are used and how much more of these resources are needed to meet future demand. But if you’re looking for a reason to turn off your camera during those long video conference calls, the following research and analysis may be just what you were looking for.
Purdue, Yale, and MIT conducted a study diving into the environmental impact of videoconferencing and found that a one-hour video call emits up to 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide, uses land the size of an iPad Mini, and consumes up to 12 liters or 3.2 gallons of water. Our digital footprint expands past video conference calls and unfortunately, other streaming devices have environmental consequences, with video-streaming having the largest ecological footprint for carbon, land, and water. The figure below represents the various ecological footprints each hour of use for popular social media and video streaming platforms:
Figure 1 – The environmental footprint of various Internet applications. Image by Purdue University/Kayla Wiles.
Demand for internet access is only increasing therefore requiring the development of more data centers. Data centers are the primary facility that conduct operations and maintain the equipment necessary to store, process and distribute data and applications. The MIT, Purdue, and Yale study reports data centers to use an equivalent of 1% of the global energy demand for electricity consumption, which is larger than most countries' national energy consumption. These facilities also require a tremendous amount of water. A report from NBC found that one of the Google data centers in Mesa, Arizona consumes around 1 million gallons of water a day.
Figure 2 – The impacts of COVID-19 have led to increased internet usage as work from home and other activities were carried out online. Source: Obringer, Renee, et al.
Producing the electricity required by these data centers results in varying environmental impacts depending on the energy source and the efficiency of that energy. For example, Brazil maintains a lower carbon footprint for the processing/transmission of data compared to other countries but has a higher water footprint due to its heavy reliance on hydroelectric power. This also suggests that tracking the exact environmental impact may be complicated since the processing and storage of data may occur in other locations than where the data is transmitted. The displacement of these two functions of the data storing, processing, and dispersal system can lead to transboundary environmental impacts and environmental justice implications.
Luckily, the same study revealed that turning off your webcam during video conferences can reduce the ecological footprint by 96%. If you turn off your camera over an average of 15 hours of video conferencing, the carbon dioxide emissions would decrease by 9.4 kilograms/20.7 pounds per month. If one million Zoom users shut off their cameras when not necessary, we could save 9,000 tons of CO2 which is equivalent to coal-powered energy used by a city of 36,000 per month.
Aside from turning off your camera, other small actions results in tremendous impacts. If you must use your camera, reducing the quality of streaming devices can be effective in reducing the number of resources for video streaming. Another suggestion is to delete emails in spam or trash folders that take unnecessary energy to store. Monitoring your cloud-based storage services for the storing of unnecessary content can reduce your ecological footprint and have the added benefit of protecting you from security risks. Other final suggestions to reduce your digital footprint are to unsubscribe from email lists, reduce gaming time, and place limits on social media activity.
However, individual actions only go so far and broader steps must be taken as the digital age takes hold. We must continue to push service providers and data centers to improve the efficiency of their operations while energy providers must continue to pursue renewable and clean forms of energy. Policymakers can also pass and enforce legislation that requires full transparency to consumers on their digital ecological footprint as well as the companies’ environmental impact portfolio.
The internet has only been available to us for a handful of decades now and like most new practices, its environmental impact is generally unknown. More studies will need to be pursued to further our understanding of the impact the internet has on our environment, but it can be a mindful reason to keep your camera off during meetings.
Miller, Rich. “Drought, Extreme Heat Sharpen Focus on Data Center Water Usage.” Data Center
Frontier, 30 June 2021, datacenterfrontier.com/drought-extreme-heat-sharpen-focus-on-data-
Obringer, Renee, et al. “The Overlooked Environmental Footprint of Increasing Internet
Use.” Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Elsevier, 8 Jan. 2021,
Purdue University. “Turn off That Camera during Virtual Meetings, Environmental Study
Says.” Purdue University News, 2021, www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2021/Q1/turn-off-
Zhang, Michael. “Turning Off Your Camera on a Zoom Call Helps Save the Planet.” PetaPixel,