My digital carbon footprint and digital sufficiency

A day in a life: Getting up at 7 am, what’s the first thing you do? A quick look at the smartphone – in case something happened overnight. You move on to work, while texting some friends and sharing some pictures along the way. At the same time, you google the weather – to help you figure out what you might want to do in the evening. At work, what’s the first thing you do? You grab a cup of coffee, chat with your colleagues and check mails before starting your first tasks. Later the day you decide to stay home. Since the weather is bad, you enjoy a chilled evening with some binge-watching of the latest series. 

It sounds like quite a sustainable day – at least no flying, cars or meat involved. Well, there are some hidden champions of carbon dioxide production. E-mail, messenger, news, navigation, search-engines, video-streaming, browsing, online games and so on – these are internet-dependent services we are all using, right? Each time we request information from one of these services, it consumes energy to perform the task.

Everyday use of mobile appliances needs energy
The everyday use of digital appliances consumes energy and produces carbon dioxide.

Our digital carbon footprint

Let`s try to estimate how much carbon dioxide is produced by daily digital actions:

US Americans send 94 text messages a day on average[1], and an employer gets around 21 e-mails a day[2]. At the same time, the average user googles around 3.4 times a day[3] and watches around 90 minutes of streaming content[4]. One email produces around 4g of CO2[5], one text message around 0,014 g of CO2, one Google search around 5g of CO2 (depending on the device you use)[6] and half an hour of streaming around 1.6kg of CO2[7]. If we combine the numbers of average usage with those numbers, we end up with an average of 5.2kg of CO2 a day. For the same amount of emissions, you could drive a car for 43,3 km or use 26 plastic bags[8]. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Keeping the datacenters running, sending the response and building the infrastructure, in the first place, accounts for 80% of carbon dioxide emission of our digital infrastructure. It is difficult to get an actuate figure, as the numbers depend on subjective calculation. But, the bottom line is, in Germany alone, the overall energy consumption sums up to 10-15 TWh to keep the digital infrastructure running, which equals the CO2 emission of the whole flight traffic in Germany[9].

If we keep heading in this direction, by 2040, 14 % of all emissions will be caused by smartphones and, thus, make up the biggest share of overall emissions.[10]

What could be possible ways out? One idea is “digital sufficiency”.

Digital sufficiency – a day in a life meets sustainability!

Digital services require infrastructure which then again requires energy. As highlighted in the first part of this post, if we continue our current path, 14% of all emissions will be caused by smartphones in 2040. This post will provide some ideas on possible solutions, or, more precisely, the concept of “digital sufficiency”.

Production of carbon dioxide
The use of smartphones also contributes to an increasing amount of Co2 emissions.

Digital sufficiency basically describes (like any other sufficiency) making decent use of resources. In this case, it refers to digital services and the transformation it brings to our lives – for better and worse. On the one hand, digitalization offers huge opportunities to make systems more efficient. On the other hand, due to what Tilman Santarius, who heads the research group on “digitalization and sustainability” at the Technical University of Berlin, calls the “rebound effect”, the gained resources are directly reinvested – and do not foster energy sustainability[11].  So, how can we make the best use of digitalization and at the same time bear ecological sustainability in mind? Here, the concept of sufficiency comes along: Use digital tools as much as necessary and as little as possible! It is not about completely abandoning services or products connected to the digital infrastructure (or blaming others for not doing so), but about making sufficient use of these.

How could the day in a life of our last post look like, when trying to be more sustainable?

Daily use of smartphones
In this digital world, the aim should be to use the smartphone more sustainably.

A day in a digital sufficient life: Getting up at 7 am, what’s the first thing you do? A quick look at your smartphone in case something important happened overnight. Your phone is fair-trade, for example from Shift or Fairphone, and second hand. You move on to work while texting some friends, but not sharing too many pictures because you’re aware of its energy consumption. To know the weather, you go to Ecosia, although having a look at the sky also seems like a reasonable alternative. You arrive at work, you check if the coffee provided by your employer is from a fair-trade brand and you take some time to socialize with your colleagues. You check your mails on and, reply to them, you try to use links rather than attachments. Later in the day, at home, you decide to watch only a few episodes and not keep them running while doing something else – instead you are simply enjoy some time offline.

You see, there are some great ideas about digital sufficiency. Get inspired, try them out or discover your own ones!

Do you want to learn more about how Karls encourages students to reflect critically on their digital actions? Check out the SENSE Center!

Article by Lukas Findeisen, SENSE Center for Civic Engagement and Responsible Management Education


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