What Working From Home Means for the Environment

How remote work affects the carbon, land and water footprints generated by increased internet traffic.

Image by Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

Today’s society is transitioning to a new “unregulated and environmentally unaudited digital world”, and the COVID-19 pandemic is only accelerating that shift. Worldwide home internet usage has dramatically increased due to stay-at-home orders issued since last March. You’d think having to commute every day would make you a hero in the fight against climate change—and you are not wrong.

Despite its huge impact on the economy and public health globally, the pandemic has some benefits, and one of them is the marked reduction of travel-related carbon dioxide emissions. However, working from home has increased considerably internet use on a global scale, with many countries reporting a boost of at least 20 percent in internet usage related to COVID-19 starting in March. Landlords and property managers have been paying attention to this shift and started to invest in upgrading their amenities and services designed to serve existing and prospective residents who work from home. According to surveys, renters are now primarily interested in high-speed internet service and reliable cell reception.

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A recent environmental study by Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure in addition to the carbon footprint. It is estimated that one gigabyte has a footprint ranging from 28 to 63 grams of carbon dioxide and its water and land footprints range between 0.03 and 9.2 gallons and between 0.1 and 3.1 square inches, respectively.

This means that the global carbon footprint could grow by more than 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide if remote work continues until the end of 2021. What’s more, this dynamic has some lesser-known environmental impacts that go beyond the carbon footprint, specifically land and water footprints.

According to the research study, one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits from 5.3 ounces to 2.2 pounds of carbon dioxide (a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits nearly 20 pounds); requires between 60 and 406 ounces of water, and demands an area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini. If work from home continues until the end of 2021, the associated water footprint for this period could fill 317,200 Olympic size swimming pools and the land footprint would be about the size of Los Angeles.

Zooming In on the Boosters

The business environment had to reshuffle and adapt and virtual meetings became the norm. As a consequence, Zoom reported a tripling of usage following the initial shutdown in the U.S. Similarly, leisure activities translated into more time spent in front of a screen, watching movies, or playing video games, with Netflix reporting a 16 percent increase in daily traffic between January and March 2020.

The report’s authors came with some recommendations that would help reduce the environmental footprints of internet use and make the transition to a digital world sustainable. These recommendations mostly refer to behavioral changes:

  • turning off video during virtual meetings
  • reducing the quality of streaming services
  • decreasing gaming time
  • limiting time on social media
  • deleting email and unneeded content on the cloud-based storage services
  • unsubscribing from irrelevant email lists.

Some of these suggestions come against technological advances and might not be so easy to apply, because users are still willing to pay hefty prices to enjoy top features such as high video quality.

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Image by Jagrit Parajuli via Pixabay

Yet, turning off the camera during an internet call can reduce these footprints by 96 percent, the researchers found. Similarly, streaming content in standard definition instead of high definition on apps like Netflix or Hulu could bring an 86 percent reduction.

The good news is that, in the corporate environment, there are companies that have already implemented bandwidth management processes through which streaming media access is limited to a certain daily limit (about one gigabyte per day).

Uneven Footing Across the Map

Environmental footprints vary from country to country, directly correlated with their energy mix. For example, a country that relies more on hydropower will have a higher water footprint and a lower carbon footprint. In the U.S., processing and transmitting data has a carbon footprint that is 9 percent higher than the world median, but water and land footprints are 45 percent and 58 percent lower, respectively. Moreover, the geographical difference in the internet’s environmental impact is further deepened, as data processing/storage and some part of data transmission don’t necessarily occur in the country where the data is being used.

Data centers’ electricity consumption accounts for 1 percent of the global energy demand. This figure might seem small, but it surpasses the national energy consumption of many countries. As the number of Internet users grows, so does the number of online services and applications. Consequently, the environmental footprint of the internet will continue to rise. While data center owners constantly work to improve the efficiency of their assets—and managed to reduce substantially these footprints thanks to technological advances—it might not be enough.

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