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How understanding your personal Cloud footprint can help reduce carbon emissions

As pressure increases on organisations to decarbonise their operations by 2050, the latest reports issued by both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) highlight the need to accelerate action.

Many businesses have already implemented or are designing cloud-based technologies to drive down their own emissions and improve the efficiency of their operations. Cloud is more carbon efficient than historical ways of undertaking daily tasks, but it’s not perfect, and there are steps we can all take to reduce our impact on emissions from data centres.

As individuals, our typical daily use of cloud-based systems can be responsible for around 2kg CO2e of emissions through activities such as business use and streaming music. These emissions are however far less than those activities might have otherwise contributed when using physical media. For example, the same emissions of 2kg CO2e would be created by simply listening to music via CDs, vinyl records and cassette tapes for just 30 minutes, this is due to the associated embodied emissions that arise in the processing, manufacturing, and transportation of such physical media.

In comparison it is estimated today, on cloud, you would also emit 2kg of CO2e after spending 2.5 hours on social media, the average work email usage, one hour-long online meeting and an hour of Netflix streaming. While this demonstrates how much more efficient cloud usage is, there is no doubt a clear growing impact on the environment, particularly when considered collectively.

Decarbonising cloud-based technologies relies upon a combination of reducing its energy demands and ensuring adequate provision of clean energy, but to achieve that it’s important to understand that it will require consumers, as well as businesses, to make conscious decisions about the use of digital technologies.

At an individual level, this may include altering the decisions about what we consume, re-assessing our habits, sharing knowledge and empowering others within our personal and professional networks to do the same. The aggregation of these seemingly minute individual actions, like a domino effect, leads to powerful sustainable networks being built from the ground up.

So, what really is your personal cloud footprint?

How do you understand your daily impact on cloud computing? How do you quantify it?

Picture that it’s Monday morning, 7AM. You’ve set an alarm on your mobile phone, which you snooze before the first buzz has finished. Recently one of your colleagues had their phone stolen so you backed everything stored on your device to iCloud, even the photos and videos that are automatically saved from WhatsApp, which you also have cloud backups enabled on. You’re already using the cloud. You’ve only opened one eye and you’re already contributing to your personal cloud footprint.

The alarm goes off for a second time. You roll over, pick up your phone and open Outlook to check your diary and emails. You’ve now entered the cloud for a second time and the clock just hit 7.05AM.

As it’s Monday you promised yourself you would jump out of bed, get dressed and head to the gym. On the way you listen to Spotify to get you ready for the session and decide you’ll do the 30min HIIT workout you found on YouTube yesterday. You’re now streaming audio from Spotify and video from YouTube. It is estimated that one hour of streaming music produces around 55 grams of CO2e (CO2 equivalents, a method of standardising Greenhouse Gases based on their Global Warming Potential), with a similar amount produced by streaming video. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, that is equivalent to charging 6.7 smartphones.

After completing your workout, you return home from the gym, get ready for work and head out of the door. It’s 8AM. While waiting for the overground you decide you’ll watch an episode of Friends on your 20-minute commute. Netflix recently released figures estimating that one hour of streaming on its platform produced just under 100g CO2e, equivalent to driving a car for a quarter of a mile. As you watch, you are using the same amount of CO2e as boiling a kettle for two minutes.

You arrive at work, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea - this act nearly doubles those emissions of your streaming - and settle yourself in at your desk. You switch on your laptop and plug in your monitor, returning back to Outlook, catching up on emails and firing out responses. Across the globe over 300 billion emails are sent every day to around 4 billion accounts, of which you undoubtedly contribute at least two from your personal and work accounts

An average email contributes 4g CO2e in emissions, but this jumps up to 50g CO2e when including photos or files as attachments. An average day sees an office worker receiving 126 emails and sending 42 for a total of 672g CO2e, comparable to driving 1.7 miles. When we look across the world however, those 300 billion emails a day could very well equate to 1.2 million tonnes CO2e, or nearly 146 billion smartphones charged. Every day.

Even the most environmentally conscious commuter will still have daily emissions comparable to driving to work. Work emails aren’t the only contributing factor to that 300 billion figure either. How many websites have you signed up to newsletters and offers for in exchange for a one-time discount? How many times has your personal email address been sold or made available to spammers that now clog up your spam folder? How many times have you looked at the ‘unsubscribe’ button on an email and thought “I’ll do it next time”? While not as significant as the impact of an average work email, each spam email still accounts for 0.3g CO2e when in your inbox but drops to 0.03g CO2e when caught by filters. Either way it adds up quickly when we look at the average daily volume globally being 122.33 billion.

Now that you’ve caught up on emails, you jump into your first meeting of the day. With the era of online meetings, users now see themselves emitting up to 1kg CO2e for every 60 minutes of video conferencing. That’s equivalent to driving 2.5 miles just by sitting at your screen for an hour. On top of that, a survey ran by Microsoft’s Work Trends Index found that 42% of respondents admitted to multitasking during these meetings which means if you’re sending emails or updating the Excel Online spreadsheet, you’re adding even more cloud emissions sources. At surface-level this seems like a needless expense of emissions, but when online meetings are combined with reduced travel for work, either by working from home more often or eliminating travel from long-distances, the net benefit is clear. Those 2.5 miles can even be drastically reduced by up to 96% just by switching off your video.

The workday ends, you hop back on the overground and head home. Along the way you search up a recipe for dinner, at an estimated 10g CO2e. Perhaps you plotted your route home on Google Maps, another ping to the cloud. You likely paid for your food shop by card using the cloud to process the transaction.

It's 10PM now. By the time your head hits the pillow at the end of the day, you find that you have somehow spent 2 hours and 29 minutes on social networks. The carbon impact during this time can be projected - based on the most popular 10 social media applications – such that a single user is equivalent to driving nearly a mile in a light vehicle. Looking specifically at one of the fastest growing platforms, TikTok, an estimated 2.63g CO2e is produced per minute of use. If the average user spent a third of their daily social media time on TikTok, then this would amount to nearly 124 driven miles (50kg CO2e) worth of emissions per person per year.

But what can you do about it?

So, with cloud computing only growing in use and becoming more ingrained in our everyday lives, what can you do to cut reduce your personal cloud footprint? Here are some actions we can all undertake today;

  1. Switching your camera off in meetings can reduce carbon emissions by up to 96%.
  2. Compressing email attachments or simply hyper-linking the relevant media is the most effective method of reducing footprint created by emails. Up to 15g can be saved per MB reduced through compression.
  3. Unsubscribing from content-heavy newsletters and offers can reduce emissions by up to 26g CO2e per email, equivalent to charging 6 smartphones.
  4. Marking spam emails in your inbox as junk can reduce emissions by a factor of 10.
  5. Being aware of how many applications you enable cloud backup on and how many you actually need.