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Your data has an environmental cost


When most people think about contributors to climate change, they tend to think of oil, construction, and transport. Yet a significant and growing proportion of emissions are due to digital technology. 

We’re used to seeing ‘think before you print’ messages at the bottom of emails, but now a team of academic researchers are asking if we need to think deeper, and whether we should be sending that email at all.

All online activities have an environmental cost: every time an email is shared or a file downloaded or a website refreshed, the cost increases. Simply adding a picture to an email signature means the email will contain an attachment, adding to the energy needed to send, receive, and store the data. While that increase might seem miniscule, it quickly adds up when thousands of people are sending hundreds of emails a day.

Now a team of academics are calling on colleagues and universities to think more deeply about their digital footprint - and suggesting new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their digital work. 

The Digital Humanities Climate Coalition (DHCC) has produced a “Toolkit” to help individuals and organisations make better digital choices that can both save money – and help save the planet.

The Toolkit doesn’t focus simply on personal responsibility. The use of information communication technology is estimated to contribute 1.8% to 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. This is projected to increase significantly as we move towards a more digital world – so the Toolkit also looks at how institutions can make a variety of changes that will have a major impact.

These changes include selecting cloud providers who use renewable energy, or repairing instead of replacing old devices. Transport is another significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and researchers frequently travel for conferences and fieldwork. Institutions can also change their travel policies to incentivise train travel instead of flying.

The aim of the Toolkit is to help academics and institutions make better choices, saving both energy – and money.

Senior Lecturer in Digital Approaches Literature Christopher Ohge said:

“One of the issues with digital research and the sharing of data is that the process is so convenient, and the upfront costs so low. Sending an email, for instance, seems “free” – until you examine the unseen costs of data transfer. And, while we’re aware of the energy costs of cryptocurrencies, we’re only beginning to understand that the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also be enormous.

“We are very excited to launch the Toolkit, which hopefully will provide information on how we can each reduce our carbon impact as well as reducing power costs both for ourselves and our institutions.”