Prof Mike Berners-Lee warns against environmental impact of pointless emails

27 Nov 2019

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A new study estimates that if every adult in the UK cut back on ‘thank you’ emails, it could save 16,433 tonnes of carbon per year.

Prof Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, has highlighted the impact that pointless emails can have on the environment.

Berners-Lee – the brother of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web – made the comments this week after a new study featuring his research was commissioned by Ovo Energy. The study estimated that people in the UK alone send more than 64m unnecessary emails every single day.

‘We don’t think about it because we can’t see the smoke coming out of our computers, but the carbon footprint of IT is huge and growing’

According to the study, 72pc of people have no idea that their inbox activity contributes to their carbon footprint. It found that 49pc of people in the UK are guilty of sending unnecessary emails to friends and colleagues that are within talking distance, every single day.

The impact made by cutting back

The study suggested that if every adult in the UK sent one fewer “thank you” email each day, the country would save more than 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year. This is the equivalent of 81,152 flights to Madrid from the UK, or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.

Berners-Lee told The Guardian: “When you’re typing, your computer is using electricity. When you press send it goes through the network and it takes electricity to run the network. And it’s going to end up being stored on the cloud somewhere, and those data centres use a lot of electricity.

“We don’t think about it because we can’t see the smoke coming out of our computers, but the carbon footprint of IT is huge and growing.”

While there’s not much any individual can do about the billions of spam emails that are sent around the world each day, we can all certainly cut back on a couple of emails that say nothing more than “LOL” or “thanks!”

Small steps

Berners-Lee, who is a researcher at the University of Lancaster, added: “Whilst the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment.

“Every time we take a small step towards changing our behaviour, be that sending fewer emails or carrying a reusable coffee cup, we need to treat it as a reminder to ourselves and others that we care even more about the really big carbon decisions.”

The fact that our internet use results in carbon emissions and has an impact on the planet is worth considering as we enter a new decade where video game streaming could be the next big technology trend.

Earlier this year, a study called The Cost of Music, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, looked at the impact that music streaming may have on the environment.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic