E- mail your way to a warmer world

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By MAr­LOWE HOOD

EVEN as peo­ple the world over sym­bol­i­cally dimmed lights to fight global warm­ing on March 19, many joined e- mail and so­cial net­work cam­paigns that in­vis­i­bly con­trib­uted to cli­mate change.

The 10th edi­tion of Earth Day, or­gan­ised by the World Wide Fund for Na­ture ( WWF) and backed by other NGOs to raise aware­ness about the threat of cli­mate change, saw land­mark mon­u­ments go dark at 8.30pm. In­di­vid­u­als were also en­cour­aged to par­tic­i­pate and ad­just lifestyles to trim their car­bon foot­prints, thus in­cre­men­tally re­duc­ing the green­house gas emis­sions that drive global warm­ing.

Bik­ing or car- pool­ing to work, eat­ing less meat, turn­ing down the ther­mo­stat a notch in win­ter, be­com­ing an “eco- re­spon­si­ble” con­sumer – these are some of the many ways folks can make a small dif­fer­ence, es­pe­cially in rich coun­tries with higher per- capita CO2 emis­sions.

At the same time, how­ever, a par­al­lel realm of car­bon- pol­lut­ing ac­tiv­ity – rang­ing from e- mail ex­changes to so­cial net­work chat­ter to stream­ing movies on smart­phones – has slipped largely un­no­ticed un­der the cli­mate change radar.

In iso­la­tion, these dis­crete units of our vir­tual ex­is­tence seem weight­less and with­out cost. A short e- mail, for ex­am­ple, is es­ti­mated to add about 4g of CO2- equiv­a­lent ( CO2e) into the at­mos­phere. By com­par­i­son, hu­man­ity emits some 40 bil­lions tonnes of CO2 ev­ery year. But as the dig­i­tal era deep­ens, the ac­cu­mu­lated vol­ume of vir­tual mes­sages has be­come a sig­nif­i­cant part of hu­man­ity’s car­bon foot­print.

“Elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion re­lated to the growth of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies is ex­plod­ing,” notes Alain Anglade of the French En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy Man­age­ment Agency. In France it al­ready ac­counts for more than 10% of to­tal elec­tric­ity use, he said, a per­cent­age that holds for many de­vel­oped coun­tries.

To see the big pic­ture, it helps to break it down. Send­ing five dozen of those 4g e- mails in a day from your smart­phone or lap­top, for ex­am­ple, is the equiv­a­lent of driv­ing an av­er­age- size car a kilo­me­tre.

The cul­prits are green­house gases pro­duced in run­ning the com­puter, server and routers, but also in­clude those emit­ted when the equip­ment was man­u­fac­tured.

Add a 1- megabyte at­tach­ment – a photo, say – and the en­ergy con­sumed would be enough to power a low- wattage light bulb for two hours.

If that e- mail is sent to a mail­ing list, mul­ti­ply by the num­ber of re­cip­i­ents.

E- mail tips for the en­ergy- con­scious in­clude avoid­ing un­nec­es­sary re­cip­i­ents, slim­ming the weight of at­tach­ments, emp­ty­ing your trash box. Even not be­ing too ver­bose is help­ful – the car­bon counter is run­ning as some­one reads your long- winded mis­sive about that trip to Dis­ney World.

And then there’s spam, the no­to­ri­ous canned ham that be­came a by­word for un­so­licited ad­ver­tis­ing. Anti- virus soft­ware maker McAfee es­ti­mated that up­ward of 60 tril­lion spams are sent each year, gen­er­at­ing the same green­house gas emis­sions as three mil­lion cars us­ing 7.5 bil­lion litres of petrol.

And the next time you look on Google for “cats that look like Hitler” ( 536,000 hits), re­mem­ber this: a Web search on an en­ergy- ef­fi­cient lap­top leaves a foot­print of 0.2g of CO2e. On that clunky desk­top, that fig­ure goes up to 4.5g.

Even no- frills SMS text mes­sages – like the tini­est of atoms – are not with­out mass, weigh­ing in at about 0.014g of CO2e. And e- read­ers are not nec­es­sar­ily more eco- friendly than old- fash­ioned books. It takes about 1kg of CO2e to make an air­port pa­per­back, but at least 200 times as much to man­u­fac­turer an e- reader.

That means you would need to read no less than 70 books a year for three years on a dig­i­tal de­vice to be “car­bon neu­tral” com­pared to a book.

For Earth Hour, the WWF had “urged its sup­port­ers to take a stand for cli­mate ac­tion” by mas­sively us­ing Face­book and Twit­ter.

“So­cial me­dia knows no phys­i­cal bound­aries and nei­ther does cli­mate change,” said Sid­darth Das, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Earth Hour ini­tia­tive. But it does have a cost, he might add. – AFP

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