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Small change, big impact: uncovering the environmental dark side to emails

We are all aware of the ‘please consider the environment before printing this email’; it can be found at the bottom of the messages in our inboxes. But we aren’t aware how sending emails itself is harmful to the environment. However, is this something we should all worry about and seek to change?

The energy company, OVO, recently commissioned a study showing how warranted and vital our worrying and individual action are. It was calculated that more than 64 million unnecessary emails are sent each day. Each adult in the UK sending one less ‘thank-you’ email could save the same amount of carbon emissions as 81,152 flights to Madrid or taking 3,334 diesel cars off of the road. Put frankly, our politeness is killing us.

Furthermore, we are also witnessing a ‘rebound effect’. Emails are a low-carbon alternative, due to it being more convenient and eco-friendly than sending letters. But it facilitates a high-carbon lifestyle where we naturally begin to use it more.

“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.”

Mike Berners-Lee, is a professor in the environment centre at Lancaster University and author of How Bad are Bananas: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. He supervised OVO’s research on emails. When interviewed by The Guardian, he explained how typing an email uses up electricity. Beyond this, our information is sorted within data centres and networks, which require a lot of power to run.

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

In his book, Berners-Lee also discusses the carbon footprint of each type of email. A spam email has a footprint of 0.3g of carbon emissions, while a regular email is 4g. For an email with a long attachment, it can be up to 50g.

Of course, there’s an adequate case to be made against spam emails. Sorting through and deleting them takes time out of our day. But what about other emails, necessary for work and communication?

Surely, all forms of communication that aren’t word of mouth are harmful to the environment to some degree. Deciding when it is necessary to send an email and discussing its environmental impact seems daunting and tiresome.

Rest assured, solutions to this are quite simple. With the average adult spending 2.5 hours each day reading and replying to emails, this can be decreased by only checking our inboxes once or twice daily. If you are a member of a society at Warwick, use alternatives such as group chats to communicate. Email correspondence between seminar tutors or lecturers may make us feel productive. But if you don’t have to, why not save your burning questions for advice and feedback hours or before and after a seminar or lecture?

Even if you remain unconvinced by environmental reasons, there are plenty of other reasons to stop hitting send.

Save the emails for when absolutely necessary. Taking actions such as this to cut carbon emissions, to quote Berner-Lee, is: “a message to yourself that you care about the climate emergency.”

Although extremely persuasive, you can even put the environmental impact onto the back burner. Even if you remain unconvinced by environmental reasons for cutting down the amount of emails you write, there are plenty of other reasons to stop hitting send. Spending less effort and time crafting the perfect email, appropriate for each recipient, should be reason enough to send fewer emails. We can save time that we would’ve otherwise spent questioning our responses, asking ourselves if they are not formal enough or, sometimes worse, too formal.

Writing copious amounts of emails per day is fuelling the extant climate emergency and is frequently pointless and boring. Let us spend less time worrying about whether to end our emails with ‘Kind regards’ or ‘Yours sincerely’. If not for the environment, then for our own sanity.


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