What if deleting emails could save our planet?

How billions of emails including spam and unwanted emails impact the environment and how their deletion could lead a small effort in cutting carbon emissions.

Yes, you have read the right! Emails are turning out to be quite a source of carbon emissions. Well who could have thought that? Actually there are already estimations done by some big organizations which concludes that emails are polluting our planet. Let’s see how.

The emails that are transmitted over the internet are being stored somewhere. They are usually stored over multiple servers around the world. The servers are stored in big data centers which consume crazy amounts of electricity every day. And electricity is still mostly being generated by fossil fuels which results in global carbon emissions (CO2e). So the correlation is straight up, emails cause green house gas emissions.

Greenpeace estimated worldwide data center power consumption for 2012 as about 382 billion kWh. Global data centers used roughly 416 TWh in 2016, nearly 40% more than the entire United Kingdom.

A study done by McAfee estimated that worldwide total of 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008 (imagine the numbers in 2019). The average spam email causes emissions equivalent to 0.3 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per message.

Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Globally, annual spam energy use totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). That’s equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, with the same green house gas (GHG) emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using 2 billion U.S gallons of gasoline.

Spam filtering saves 135 TWh of electricity per year. That’s equivalent to 13 million cars off the road.

Source: You can find this report by clicking this link.

The answer is very simple, start deleting unwanted emails and spam. You can try to take out time to declutter your mailbox. Empty the Spam folder on a daily basis and unsubscribe to all the notification emails from social media and other unwanted websites.

Let me do a rough calculation for a day.

There are about 2.3 billion email users in the world. The average email size is about 75 kb. So, imagine if everyone deletes around 10 unwanted emails (spam and non-spam), it could prevent 1,725,000 GB of data being stored in the servers around the world.

The energy used to store 1 GB of data is around 32 kWh. So calculating that it would mean generating 55.2 million kWh less electricity to power those servers.

And that’s cutting about 39,035 metric tonnes of CO2e which is equivalent to 19356 tonnes of coal burnt every day to generate that amount of electricity (assuming that fossil fuels are being used). That’s a crazy amount of C02e released in the atmosphere every day that could be saved.

Image Credit: NBC Universal Media

The company Orange estimated that if everyone in France deleted 50 unnecessary old emails, this would be equivalent to turning off: 2.7 billion light bulbs for 1 hour (study link). That’s a crazy number!

Now as a designer I think that we can introduce small behavior changes in our daily lives that could lead a sustained effort over time to help this problem. Again this is a very tiny problem and there are many other things we could also do to help. For example: eating vegetarian or using the bike as a transport or using less streaming (which is becoming the next huge digital emitter).

We could start by deleting unwanted emails and spam on a daily basis or even better by unsubscribing to things that are not useful so we don't receive marketing and promotion emails. I mean it would just take a few clicks and less than a minute. Imagine what could be achieved if we start clearing those big chunks of data on our Google Drives and other large amounts of data stored on the cloud.

A minor change in the digital interactions which we usually do everyday could lead to cutting emissions on a global scale. The idea is to spark a global movement which could ultimately change how we behave digitally.

Image Credit: Lucas Films

Service & UX Designer. Politecnico di Milano Alumnus. Previously worked at BMW Group Design and DT (T-Labs). Currently working on Climate Engagement at Ducky.

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