Science

Q5 – did you see it? – Can sending fewer emails help save the planet?

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 soon we will all be told to send one less email a day to remove “useless” messages from a line like “thank you”.

This “would save a lot of carbon,” said an official at the COP26 climate summit that will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. But would that really make a big difference?

WHY DO EMAILS PRODUCE CARBON?

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 – you’re going through a chain of energy-consuming electronics.

Your WiFi router sends the signal over the cable to the local switchboard, the green box on the street corner in the UK, and from there to a telecommunications company, which in turn routes it to huge data centers run by tech giants. Each of them run on electricity, and it all adds up.

However, the impact of a single email on such a large infrastructure is minimal.

ARE MY EMAILS A BIG ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEM?

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

He claimed that if every Briton sent one less thank you email a day, they would save 16,433 tons of carbon a 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 akin to splashing in the lake.

The UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions were 435.2 million tonnes in 2019. The amount in question here is around 0.0037% of the national image. And that would be if every Briton reduced their emails.

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 the “unpredictable” mathematics of 2010 and while useful for starting conversations, however bigger problems are concerned.

According to Chris Preist, Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol, estimating how much carbon an email creates takes into account “absolutely everything related to it”.

He tries to include the energy consumed by servers, his home WiFi, and his laptop – even a very small fraction of the carbon that is released into the construction of the data center buildings. “The reality is that a lot of the system still has an impact, regardless of whether the email is sent or not,” explains Preist.

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

“The data center in which the e-mail is hosted is saved slightly, especially when fewer servers can be used as a result. However, the CO2 savings are well below one gram per e-mail.”

WHAT CAN MAKE THE DIFFERENCE?

Rather than worrying about relatively minor impact emails, some researchers suggest that we should turn our attention to services like streaming games. Can sending fewer emails help save the planet? And video and cloud storage, which have a much bigger impact.

However, the subject is immensely complex and there is a debate about how estimates should be calculated and who should be held responsible for them. Big tech companies like Google already pride themselves on their carbon neutrality: They pay subsidies for environmental projects to offset the carbon they burn by sending out their emails and other services like YouTube.

“What really makes the difference is buying fewer things and keeping them longer,” explains Preist. “But even that is little compared to your trip, the heating of your home, and what you eat.”

He said consumers should focus their “environmental guilt” on the things that make a difference – and not worry about small ones. “This is the job of the companies that provide the services and have to design their systems in such a way that the services are provided as efficiently as possible in terms of energy and resources.”

His advice on etiquette and thank you email? “Send an email if you think the other person appreciates you and don’t send it if they don’t,” he said. “The greatest waste from both an environmental and a personal perspective will be the use of your time.”

BBC News Brazil

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