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The Hidden Carbon Footprint

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Generation Z, made up of those born between 1997 and 2012, are generally perceived as the most “environmentally-conscious” generation. Knowing that their planet's future is at stake, Gen Zers want to take action, if they haven't already. It is predicted that Gen Z and Millennials will be the first to experience the direct consequences of a worsening climate as large companies and governments continue to obstruct action. From taking up climate activism to demanding that leaders implement new policies. Gen Z is desperately trying to cut carbon emissions in every way possible, from using reusable water bottles and bags to large scale changes such as taking up environmentally conscious diets.

Beyond their passion for fighting against climate change, Gen Z has a soft spot for the internet and, frankly, doesn’t know a world without it. Today's internet allows both younger and older generations alike to connect from opposite sides of the globe. And although this is an incredible tool, like all great things, it has its caveats. Although the internet is an amazing tool, something huge has slipped by most of Gen Z: using the internet emits greenhouse gases.

The Shift Project estimates that digital technologies, like the internet, account for approximately four percent of global carbon emissions. Although this may not sound that significant, we realize that if the internet were a country, it would be the sixth biggest polluter–not far behind huge emitters like the United States and China.

So how does this all work? How do the millions of files we have saved to a magical cloud somewhere somehow release greenhouse gases?

Although the internet everyday users know is... well... virtual, it’s powered by infrastructures called data centers. Greenpeace explains it best in saying, “Data centers serve as factories of the information age; their 24/7 operation makes online browsing, streaming, and communication possible, but delivering all this data requires a tremendous amount of electricity. The explosive demand for internet-based platforms and services has fueled a dramatic expansion in both the size and number of data centers, making them collectively one of the largest sources of new electricity demand globally.”

The problem is not necessarily the data centers themselves, but the way it's powered–mostly using fossil fuels. Rather than opting for renewable energy sources, companies can get by without consumers noticing how significant of an impact they are creating. Everything from saving a post on Instagram to taking a photo adds to your carbon footprint. It is even estimated that watching a half-hour show releases over 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere (Donovan, 19).

We all know eliminating the use of the internet is not something people will opt for, and it likely won’t even be a productive way to fight global warming. However, like most other things, there are still ways you can reduce your digital carbon footprint without completely disappearing from the digital world. Here are just five of the hundreds of thing you can do:

  1. Don’t purchase the latest models of devices and avoid charging them constantly

  2. Avoid streaming when possible

  3. Try out Ecosia (an online search engine add-on that donates 80% or more of its profits to non-profit organizations that focus on reforestation)

  4. Moderate your internet and social media usage

  5. Delete unnecessary emails, pictures, and files

Digital carbon footprints are a huge issue but at the same time, cutting emissions in this field is probably the easiest step you take to lower your carbon footprint. The internet is an incredible tool, but we have to make sure we use it in a way that keeps the environment in mind.

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