Do Emails Contribute to Climate Change?

Could our reliance on emails, and the need to store each of them, contribute to climate change? It might be time to consider email best-practice.

It’s no secret that global consumption of power and energy resources is increasing, especially as we continue to develop devices that require more resources to process and store information. With digital technologies forming the backbone of our modern economy, and the subsequent need for massive data centers all over the world to store exponentially-increasing amounts of information, could our email usage, and the need to store each email, be contributing to an increasing need for fossil fuels and, thereby, climate change?

With every email composed, sent and stored, there’s a need for power. Although it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of electricity used for every email sent, statistics show that, overall, the need for electricity on a global scale is significant. With the growing use of the cloud and the convenient ability to store our information on hardware located in different parts of the world, are we losing awareness of the connection between the electricity needed to run individual servers and becoming oblivious to the resources necessary to have our emails and other information conveniently accessible?

According to government sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the consensus is that there’s a connection between the human consumption of fossil fuels over the last century and the worrying increase in global temperatures. According to the National Resources Defence Council, data centers are set to use up to 140 billion kilowatt-hours in 2020, which equates to 100 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution per year. With this knowledge in mind, it seems safe to conclude that our dependency on electricity for communications is contributing to climate change to some degree, even if we cannot prove every computer user’s exact contribution to the global problem that we face with our digital dependency.

Large corporations like Google have been proactive about communicating their use of renewable energy to power their data centers, which with applications like Gmail, do contribute to a considerable percentage of the world’s data storage needs. Other similar large corporations, used and relied upon by millions of people per day, use data centers to serve a multitude of people and store a large quantity of data. With the need to be transparent and report on their high energy consumption, it’s clear that the growing need for these kinds of data storage facilities is a cause for concern.

Ironically, research suggests that it’s the smaller outsourced data centers which contribute to the most power usage, as these are often not used to their full capacity and since they are smaller and independent aren’t being taken to task for their energy efficiency. This awareness of the need to be more aware of energy usage has led to a move to build more efficient data centers, given the fact that our need for data storage is not likely to decrease anytime soon. With millions of emails sent across the globe on a daily basis, a movement that aims to limit the use of email and unnecessary data storage can no doubt contribute to a more productive use of our global energy resources.

The #noemail movement aims to challenge our dependency on email, and question the need to send individual messages on a constant basis, adding to already high levels of stress and miscommunication in the workplace. With the global energy crisis discussed above in mind, it seems appropriate to challenge the assumption that email is the default medium of digital communication, especially considering how many physical resources are needed to facilitate the storage and sending of emails in a world where there are less resource-intensive alternatives.

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