The Impact of “Visible” vs. “Invisible” Emissions

By Clare McKenzie
January 29, 2024
2 min read

Across the world, people introduce pollutants into the environment every single day.  When thinking about pollution, physically destructive toxins such as micro-plastics and smog typically come to mind.  As a population, we can take personal responsibility for making switches from gas-fueled cars and single-use plastics to electric vehicles and bamboo straws.  These actions tangibly reduce environmental impact, because we can see and interpret their impact.Unfortunately, some of the most ecologically harmful practices that manifest as routines in our day-to-day lives are not glaringly obvious.

The“visible” emissions from tailpipes and litter have straightforward solutions, but “invisible” emissions from electricity usage and cloud storage are less intuitively understood and therefore more difficult to reduce. According to HuffPost, a person purchasing a paper newspaper creates less carbon emissions than an individual reading 10 minutes of news online does.  But the impact of technology is often overlooked, because it can’t be thrown away or “seen.”

The electricity used to power digital devices accounts for a small portion of their total energy usage.  For example, streaming video online generates 60%of the world’s total internet usage. The carbon footprint of streaming annually equates to 300 million tons, or 1% of total emissions worldwide. (Want to understand exactly how internet usage creates such a massive footprint? Check out our blog post on digital footprints.)

Invisible emissions from online activity have skyrocketed globally during the last decade, and they continue on an upward trajectory.  While most carbon reduction tactics focus on “visible”emissions, reducing emissions from technology can be just as effective. For individuals, small actions such as dimming your computer monitor from 100% to 70% can reduce energy consumption by up to 20%.  Downloading content from the web can reduce environmental impact as well.  For example, if you plan to watch a video or presentation more than once, downloading it will minimize the number of times that your device receives the same information from servers, lowering total server energy usage which makes up a massive portion of the world’s carbon footprint.

As more businesses enter the technology sector and others function both digitally and physically, carbon offsets for tangible waste and pollution are not enough to effectively neutralize environmental impact. By understanding the energy breakdown of our personal actions, we can pave the way to a cleaner future.

Interested in learning the carbon footprint of your technology? Request a demo from Ecolytics! We calculate the environmental impact of companies by determining the footprint of their tech in proportion to total carbon emissions. To keep up with Ecolytics, follow us on our social media platforms linked below!

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