The awareness of the carbon footprint of IT and online activity is increasing as a result of media reports, for example thought-provoking articles by the Royal Society, BBC Future and Carbonbrief.org However, ready-to-use carbon footprint calculators, including the widely used Carbonfootprint.com calculator, do not yet include IT, online, social media and video conferencing activities – even though most of us have engaged in much more of this since face-to-face contact has been curtailed by during the covid-19 pandemic of 2020.
At this time (late 2021), much of the reported data that allows calculations to be made, appears to be referring to a limited range of original sources. These reports include Down to Earth, Energuide and Websitecarbon. Trying to make sense of the little data I could find, I have used the planning phase of the Antarctic Quest 21 expedition, for which I am the scientific advisor, as an example. My first challenge was to estimate (there was no way of counting that) the amount of online activity on behalf of the expedition. Given that there will be large uncertainties associated with this estimate, the carbon footprint calculated here can only seen to be very rough … but then again, is that not so with many carbon calculations?
Here is what I did:
The expedition has been in planning for about four years, with a phase of more intense preparation during the final 18 months. Online activities, such as weekly email traffic, WhatsApp and internet use and searches were estimated by each team member. The data was then extrapolated for 2 years for team members and 4 years for the expedition leader, whereby different intensities were taken into account.
Emails were estimated to 53000, whereby a sub-sample survey (n=200) indicated that around 10% of emails included either an image or substantial attachment (50 g CO2e per email), while the remaining 90% were just text (4 g CO2e per email). The combined carbon footprint for emails amounted to 456 kg CO2e.
Team members participated in around 1680 hours of meetings on zoom. Assuming that one zoom hour with webcam uses around 2.5 GB data, and each GB data is equivalent of around 1.8 kWh electricity. Considering the worst-case scenario of 475 g CO2e per kWh for non-renewable energy production, the carbon footprint of zoom meetings was estimated to be 3590 kg CO2e. That’s a lot! There is a ready-to use zoom emission calculator, which amounted to 1900 kg CO2e for the 1680 hours and an average of eight participants per group call. On the basis of a simple 170 g CO2e per hour of zoom suggested by some reports, our zoom footprint would be around 385 kg CO2e. Uncertainty that spans a factor of 10 is not really very useful, and perhaps it is best to go with the middle ground for now (1900 kg CO2e).
WhatsApp messaging was the dominant means of communication between individual team members, the main team chat and several sub-groups, and around 42400 messages were exchanged. WhatsApp messages are almost as carbon-intensive as emails and around 12% of messages surveyed included gifs or photographs. The carbon footprint for WhatsApp messages amounted to 400 kg CO2e.
Around 1400 hours were spent searching for and reading documents on the internet, including building and maintaining the website. As a (very) wild guess, I estimated that each internet hit resulted in a 5 minute long read, and each website hit released 2.5 g CO2e. In addition, for each hit, I assumed that three searches were undertaken, each resulting in more than five results returned, and therefore, each search was responsible for 10 g CO2e. Combined, hours on the internet and searches emitted approximately 90 kg CO2e.
Shared cloud data storage ahead of the expedition was 15 GB and was accounted for by calculating the footprint via electricity use and energy intensity, as for zoom meetings. The carbon footprint of data cloud storage ahead of the expedition amounted to 13 kg CO2e
The website has been operative for around 18 months ahead of the expedition and its carbon footprint was calculated with the online calculator Websitecarbon.com, assuming over 10000 hits annually, and amounted to 333 kg CO2e per year, or 500 kg CO2e so far.
In total, the online carbon footprint of the expedition planning and preparation phase amounts to around 3.3 t CO2e.
What have I learned?
First of all, I was amazed by the volume of online traffic, in particular emails and WhatsApp messages. Sure, there was some banter and fun, some ‘thank you’ or ‘thumbs up’ messages that could be cut, and were all of the emojis necessary to express more clearly the meaning of a text? But most of it was serious and necessary. Weekly meetings in person would would not be practical and certainly would have a larger carbon footprint, and perhaps weekly zoom meetings were important – not only for the information exchange, but also to forge team from people living far apart, who would soon find themselves working very closely together in extreme conditions.
Organising and expedition is a massive task and I can now appreciate why, sometimes, a message did not get read in what I considered a reasonable time frame (sorry for badgering you, Paul).
Testing the website revealed that it is more carbon intense than 84% of tested sites (Challenging Habitat was worse than 92% sites!!). Food for thought, to use fewer images, move to a different hosting service that uses renewable energy or, better still, convince WordPress to do that. As far as the expedition goes, we will include our online footprint in our carbon offset.
We need more data and a standardised way of calculating this, similar to that in the airline industry, to reduce uncertainty.
But the real question for each of us is about justification. Can we justify our online carbon footprint through the mission we have, our values and the intentions we hold?
The first step to positive change is awareness and asking the right questions.
Featured Image: Team in tent using Satellite Communication by AST during the Antarctic Quest 21 Expedition. Photo (c) Antartic Quest 21.
Writing about Antarctic Quest 21, it is only fit to thank all of our friends, sponsors and supporters: NAAFI Team Army/Team Ethos Costain Group PLC BetterYou Ltd Applied Satellite Technology LtdGreencastle Consulting Klättermusen AB Fjellpulken AS Polar Latitudes Clean Planet Energy PlanetLabs.Earth LikeToBe.org LGfL Devon and Plymouth Chamber of Commerce Royal Geographical Society Prof Dr Ger Graus OBE Phil Carrotte Tim Ellis Twin Science & Robotics Verofax Limited Alpenverein Osterreich Beyond Exploration Shackleton Whisky Paul Read Martin Holland, FRGS USNAR Polar Science and Technology Program The Ulysses Trust Expedition Base Camp Anjuli Selvakumaran Elliot Brown Watches University of Plymouth Utrecht University The University of Manchester Durham University University of Tasmania Challenging Habitat AndrewSmedley PippaWhitehouse Colonel Paul John Edwards MBE The Honourable Alexandra Shackleton Lieutenant General Richard Nugee CB CVO CBE AngelaMilne Simon Ussher Nigel Marley MichielvanDenBroeke ImogenNapper Emily Whitehead Kate Retallick Claire Grogan FRGS Charlotte Braungardt