What‘s the carbon footprint of an email?

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Windfarms provide clean energy to power mail.com data center
Nowadays we are all asking ourselves “How can I reduce my carbon footprint?” And many of us are spending more and more time online – working remotely as well as streaming our favorite series and listening to music. Business travel has been significantly reduced, replaced by chats, video calls, and, of course, emails. Each of these online activities still cause carbon dioxide emissions, even if only a few grams.

This is because energy needs to be generated to power our devices and Wi-Fi – and, more significantly, the data centers and servers needed to store all that content and keep the internet running. So how do our emailing habits impact on the environment?

Email carbon footprint varies

The footprint of an individual email can vary dramatically. In 2010,  Mike Berners-Lee, a researcher at Lancaster University, crunched some numbers and came up with figures ranging from 0.3 g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) for a spam email to 50g CO2e for an email with a “long and tiresome attachment.” These figures not only account for the IT infrastructure you need to receive, read, write and send emails in your home or office, but also the power used by the servers and data centers that process and store them. Based on these numbers, he estimated that receiving emails adds 300 pounds of emissions to the average person’s carbon footprint in a typical year.

A more recent figure comes from Germany, where in 2019 an expert in the Bavarian consumer protection agency estimated that a normal email without an attachment is responsible for 10g CO2e – about the same amount as a plastic bag – and that the amount is doubled by adding a one-megabyte attachment. A another study performed in 2019 by UK power company Ovo Energy tackled the problem from the other end, calculating how much we can reduce our carbon footprint by cutting down on emailing. Their conclusion: if every email user in that country were to send one fewer email per day, it would lead to a total annual reduction of 16,433 metric tons CO2e – the equivalent of 81,152 flights between London Heathrow and Madrid.

Data centers – the key to our digital carbon footprint

The two factors contributing to our email carbon footprint are the energy used at home or work to write the emails, and the energy it takes to store and transmit them through servers and data centers. The energy efficiency of data centers has been improving by leaps and bounds, but in the United States they are still responsible for two percent of the country’s electricity use. Everywhere you look nowadays, however, electricity is being generated by cleaner methods, which means that the energy powering servers and data centers is greener as well.

Climate-friendly email from mail.com

In the case of mail.com, our data center in Kansas – which has an annual power consumption of 13 GWh – has been using 100 percent wind energy since 2020. We also offset the carbon footprint of our headquarters in Pennsylvania with renewable energy certificates. So we can proudly affirm that mail.com is an extremely climate-friendly email service. This helps all mail.com users shrink their personal carbon footprint through the reduced environmental impact of sending or receiving email.

How you can reduce your email carbon footprint at home

Besides signing up with a green email provider, there are other steps individuals can take to bring the climate impact of each email down to zero. The most important is choosing the right home energy supplier to make sure the inbox on your screens is being powered by green energy. In addition, environmental experts suggest reducing the size of emails and the amount of email data you save to cut the amount of power it takes to store them. Here are a few tricks that can help:
  • Send links to files instead of attachments (our free Cloud file sharing feature is great for this!)
  • Unsubscribe from newsletters you no longer read
  • Reduce email size by compressing images and avoiding large HTML elements
  • Regularly update your mailing lists so no messages are sent to invalid addresses
  • Delete old, unnecessary emails from your custom folders, and empty your Trash and Spam folders regularly (check your folder settings)
  • Turn off social media email notifications – usually they just duplicate information you already see online
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