Turning Off The Camera Means Lower Carbon Footprint

New study proves that there is a high environmental cost to using video and streaming.

While video conferencing is at a all time high, one study issues a new warning. (Stock photo.)

While video conferencing is at a all time high, one study issues a new warning. (Stock photo.)

One of the most used inventions during the pandemic is the camera. Many can agree that it has helped learning and student engagement during these unprecedented times. However, according to a new study published in the academic journal Resources, Conservation, and Recycling, turning off a web camera during a Zoom conference, a Google Meet conference, or a Skype call reduces the amount of electricity consumed and environmental damage incurred. By switching to audio only, a user cuts their carbon footprint by 96 percent. The study was conducted by researchers at Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The study found that one hour of videoconferencing or streaming leads to the emission of between 150 and 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, causes the use of between two and 12 liters of water, and requires a land area about the size of an iPad Mini. In comparison, a gallon of gasoline burned by a car emits about 8,887 grams of carbon.

(Image courtesy of (Purdue University/Kayla Wiles.)

(Image courtesy of (Purdue University/Kayla Wiles.)

Internet users can encourage a lower rate of camera use by:

  • Educating supervisors, peers, teachers, family, friends, and the general public about the negative impacts of video and streaming
  • Informing large corporations that rely on video, like Facebook, that audiences are interested in more environmentally friendly options
  • Using videoconferencing and streaming selectively—only for necessary purposes
  • Encouraging the adoption of clean electricity like solar, wind and hydroelectric electricity
  • Linking the use of clean electricity to Internet infrastructure 
  • Exploring other ways to connect with others, including digital documents, phone calls, snail mail, and activities that do not rely on video, such geocaching 

Another idea to reduce the use of video is to explore taping content so that it can be streamed in standard definition rather than high definition. This can reduce emissions by 86 percent. Such a reduction is possible with apps like Netflix or Hulu. Apps such as YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter have not made this possible yet. 

Kaveh Madani, an environmental scientist, directed the study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center, which promotes teaching and research about all aspects of international affairs. The project on the effect of video use showed that footprints vary by web platform and country. 

In this study, the research team examined data from Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the UK, and the U.S. In the U.S., the carbon footprint of processing and transmitting Internet data was 9 percent higher than the world median, while the water and land footprints were lower than the world median by 45 and 58 percent, respectively. 

The study shows that poor Internet infrastructure, a lack of best practices, and the absence of consumer and corporate education regarding Internet infrastructure can lead to unnecessary environmental damage.

The period of forced confinement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 led to a significant drop in global carbon emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project and Nature. Yet the Internet infrastructure’s carbon footprint was increasing before the pandemic. It accounted for about 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to a study by The Shift Project, a French think tank that advocates shifting to a “post-carbon” economy. The water and land footprints of the Internet have not been widely measured. 

Decrease in daily global CO2 emissions during the lockdown. (Image courtesy of Nature.)

Decrease in daily global CO2 emissions during the lockdowns. (Image courtesy of Nature.)

In 2019, The Shift Project developed a campaign that advocated “lean” Internet use and “digital sobriety.” In 2021, almost a year into the pandemic, thousands of new users are heavily dependent on video and streaming. Many are also using video and streaming much more than they did before the pandemic. As users have recognized the advantages of videoconferencing for gatherings like community meetings, it is likely that some of these shifts will become permanent. 

Users, governments and corporations now have the opportunity to explore the true cost of video and streaming. They can recognize and promote alternatives. They can also determine how to encourage technological innovation to meet current and future use patterns. In 2022, with support from both users and providers, remote work, distance learning, and in-home entertainment have the potential to become greener.