Earth Hour dilemma: When the 'like' button harms the planet

Mar 29, 2012 by Richard Ingham
Green groups around the world are turning to social networking to drive their campaign for Earth Hour on Saturday, when lights are turned off for an hour to signal concern about global warming.

Green groups around the world are turning to social networking to drive their campaign for Earth Hour on Saturday, when lights are turned off for an hour to signal concern about global warming.

But here's the irony.

With every email, every tweet, every appeal watched on or "liked" on Facebook, environmentalists are stoking the very problem they want to resolve.

Each time we network, we emit carbon dioxide (CO2) through the fossil fuels which are burned to power our computers and the servers and databanks that store or relay our message.

That poses a small dilemma for the Australian-led campaign for Saturday's switchoff.

In 130 countries around the world, people are being urged to turn off the lights for one hour at 8.30 pm local time as a show of concern about .

In emails alone, the typical officeworker is responsible for 13.6 tonnes of CO2 or its equivalent per year, a French government agency for , ADEME, calculated last year.

That figure is based on a French company of 100 people who work 220 days a year and each receive 58 mails a day and send 33 per day, with an average size of one megabyte.

By comparison, 13.6 tonnes is more than twice the annual per capita in France and almost two-thirds of the average annual emissions per capita in the US.

The more people you cc and the bigger the mail, the greater the carbon emissions, ADEME said.

"Just a 10-percent reduction in the number of mails that are sent which include the boss and one of his colleagues leads to a gain of one tonne, the equivalent of a round-trip flight from Paris to New York," it said.

Facebook and Twitter say they are striving to keep their carbon footprint as small as possible.

Facebook, which claims 800 million users worldwide, is building a centre -- its third globally and first in Europe -- in the Swedish town of Luleaa, near the .

The local chill helps cool servers, rather than using air conditioning to do so, and the town gets clean energy from hydro.

Greenpeace had mustered a 700,000-signature demand for a "greener" under its so-called Unfriend Coal campaign.

At a talk last year that he posted on the Internet, Raffi Krikorian, a director for infrastructure at Twitter, said the company contributed around 0.02 grammes of CO2 to the atmosphere with each 140-character .

"But at 50 million tweets, that's one metric tonne of CO2 a day," he observed. "We can do better. We are making our stuff a lot more efficient, and that will get (our carbon emissions) a lot further down."

Just how climate-damaging is the Internet?

By comparison with other sectors, not very -- and it can be argued that the Internet saves carbon which would otherwise be emitted in snail mail, phone calls or travel to face-to-face meetings.

A 2007 estimate by Gartner Inc., an international consulting firm, found the information and communications technology industry was sharply increasing its CO2 emissions in absolute terms but still accounted for only around two percent of the global total.

This is less than a sixth of emissions from either transport, industry or agriculture.

Andy Ridley, Earth Hour's executive director, said his organisation invested in offsets -- projects that mitigate -- to compensate for its own fossil-fuel pollution.

It was also using an intranet social platform called Yammer to cut down on internal emails.

"It has revolutionised how we communicate and very significantly cut the amount of electronic traffic," Ridley told AFP.

"Overall, we think that our ability to build a campaign digitally, and to engage with people across the planet in a way that minimises travel, is one of the great advantages of technology."

Explore further: Climate rhetoric faces devil in the detail at Lima talks

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User comments : 4

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rubberman
not rated yet Mar 29, 2012
I'm glad they put the comparison to the alternatives to email in there. I also wonder if the french study took into account that the computer is on regardless of what it is doing and subtracted that from the total CO2....
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Mar 29, 2012
That figure is based on a French company of 100 people who work 220 days a year and each receive 58 mails a day and send 33 per day, with an average mail size of one megabyte.

Woha...1 Megabyte? What are they sending in those emails? Even if the occasional email has an attachment that seems pretty high.

But seriously: if you want to offset those 10 emails you sent to further the campaign then switch off for 61 minutes instead of just 60 minutes.
Callippo
not rated yet Mar 29, 2012
The whining about energy consumption will not save us - we should start to use the environmentally friendly and cheap energy sources, like the cold fusion. Or at least start with its research seriously at the governmental level. Why we have governmentally supported research of gravitational waves, neutrinos and/or Higgs bosons - but not artifacts, which were observed before fifty years already? It simply gives no meaning for anyone, who just does care about effectiveness of scientific research.
denijane
not rated yet Apr 02, 2012
"Each time we network, we emit carbon dioxide (CO2) through the fossil fuels which are burned to power our computers and the servers and databanks that store or relay our message."
That's ridiculous. My laptop is on with or without the Earth Hour. Therefore, the act of Like-ing requires a minute amount of additional CO2 compared to my normal use of the computer.
Similarly, if I use the one hour of darkness for sex, I'll still be increasing the CO2. So what, should we stop having sex, or stay always with the lights on, so that we don't increase the CO2 consumption?
The idea of the Earth hour is to bring attention to the over-consumption of resources, nothing more, nothing less. Any human activity requires energy, the only way to completely stop this is extinction. But this is not the idea. The idea is to use smartly and efficiently.

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