Annual UK greenhouse gas emissions.  Projected million tons of CO2e.  The forecasts for 2019 are preliminary.

Climate Change: Can Sending Less Email Really Save the Planet?

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By David Molloy
Technology reporter

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Are you the type who always says thanks? Well if it’s by email you should stop, so British officials are looking for ways to save the environment.

The Financial Times reports that we might all soon be asked to send one less email a day to rule out “useless” single-line messages like “thank you”.

This “would save a lot of carbon,” said an official involved in next year’s COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow.

But would it really make a big difference?

Why do emails produce carbon at all?

Most people tend to think of the internet as a cloud that exists outside of their computer hardware. The reality, however, is that when you send an email – or anything else – a chain of energy-burning electronics is going on.

Your WLAN router sends the signal via cable to the local exchange – the green box on the street corner – and from there to a telecommunications company and from there to huge data centers operated by the technology giants. Each of them run on electricity, and it all adds up.

However, the impact of a single email on such a massive infrastructure is small.

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Are my emails a major environmental problem?

The Financial Times report said officials promoting the idea referred to a press release from renewable energy company Ovo Energy a year ago.

It would claim that if every UK person sent one less thank you email a day, 16,433 tonnes of carbon would be saved each year, the equivalent of tens of thousands of flights to Europe.

The problem, however, is that even if the amounts were calculated roughly, it would still be a splash in the pond.

The UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions were 435.2 million tonnes in 2019. The amount in question is therefore around 0.0037% of the national figure. And that’s when every single British person cuts down on their email spending.

Mike Berners-Lee, a distinguished professor on the subject whose research was used in the work of Ovo Energy, told the Financial Times that it was based on 2010 back-of-the-envelope math – useful to start conversations there were bigger questions.

In addition, the estimate of how much carbon an email creates takes into account “absolutely everything that goes with it,” said Chris Preist, Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at Bristol University.

It tries to capture the energy consumed by servers, your home WiFi, and your laptop – even a very small fraction of the carbon that is released into building the data center buildings.

“The reality is that a large part of the system still has an impact, regardless of whether the email is sent or not,” explains Prof. Preist.

“Your laptop is still switched on, your WLAN is still switched on, your Internet connection at home is still switched on, the broader network still uses approximately the same amount of energy even at lower volume.

“In the data center in which the e-mail is hosted, there is little savings, especially if fewer servers can be used as a result. However, the CO2 saving is well under 1 g per e-mail.”

What can make a difference

Rather than worrying about email with relatively minor impact, some researchers suggest turning our attention to services such as game and video streaming, as well as cloud storage, which have a much greater impact.

The subject is immensely complex, however, and there is debate about how estimates should be calculated – and who should be responsible for them.

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Big tech companies like Google already pride themselves on their carbon neutrality: They pay subsidies for environmental projects to offset the carbon they use for your email – and for other services like YouTube.

“What really makes a difference is buying less kit and keeping it longer,” explains Prof. Preist. “But even that is a little fish compared to your trip, the heating of your house and what you eat.”

He said consumers should focus their “green guilt” on things that make a difference – rather than the little things sweating.

“That is the job of the companies that provide the services and should design their systems in such a way that the services are provided as energy and resource efficiently as possible.”

His advice on email etiquette and thank you messages?

“Send an email when you feel the other person will appreciate you and not when they don’t,” he said.

“The greatest waste from both an environmental and a personal point of view will be the use of time by both of you.”

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