Greening Our Digital Footprint: What is a Digital Carbon Footprint?

Today, we’re ecstatic to launch a brand new series dedicated to helping nonprofits green their digital footprint. Over the next several weeks, we’ll explore topics such as sustainable web searches, environmentally-friendly web design and hosting, and lots more to help organizations in the sector bring a sustainability lens to yet another vital aspect of their work, that is, their online presence!


What is a Digital Carbon Footprint?

Over the years, concerns over the health of our planet have helped us understand the impact that our individual and collective choices have on the ecosystems, species, and resources we depend on. This impact has come to be known as our ‘carbon footprint’, the total amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane that are generated by our everyday actions. But while we’re better accustomed to thinking about the footprint of choices such as what we eat, what clothes we buy, how we move around, and how much we travel, many of us haven’t given much thought to our online life and the impact it may be having on the environment. This is where the idea of a digital carbon footprint comes in.

This type of footprint represents the greenhouse gas emissions that are generated by our online activities, whether that’s streaming videos, participating in remote meetings, playing video games, downloading files and so forth. While we tend to think of online- and cloud-based activities as more efficient––and, in many ways, they can be––it’s true that they rely on networks of physical infrastructure that require lots of energy and resources in order to function. This is why producing, consuming and transfering data online tends to cause more carbon emissions than one might think. As the folks at MyClimate put it, “every single search query, every streamed video and every type of cloud computing, executed billions of times, is responsible for ever-​increasing global demand for energy and thus also for increasing CO2 emissions.”

According to several studies, our digital footprint accounts for anywhere between 2.3-3.7% of global carbon emissions, equivalent to the emissions of the entire aviation industry. As the organization MightyBytes reports:

  • At 1.6 billion metric tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions (and rising fast), the internet contributes more to climate change than most countries.

  • Millions of tons of e-waste—any discarded product with a battery or plug—are produced each year, clogging landfills, polluting waterways with hazardous chemicals, and contributing to ecological breakdown and species destruction.


Committing to Environmental Digital Responsibility (EDR)

To raise awareness about the growing environmental impact that digital technologies have on the planet and its dwindling non-renewable resources, organizations around the world have started taking action by delcaring their committment to ‘environmental digital responsibility’. Echoing similar calls for corporate social responsibility, EDR is a way to build momentum around the need for new best practices and better policies to usher in a truly sustainable digital transformation. MightyBytes, an early pioneer in this space, defines EDR this way:

“Environmental Digital Responsibility is part of a broader Corporate Digital Responsibility framework that also addresses the social, economic, and technological ramifications of our digital choices including sustainable web design. It is meant to help organizations make more ecologically responsible decisions related to digital products, services, policies, and practices. This requires that we design waste—physical, virtual, and otherwise—out of the system. It also requires us to remain vigilant about how our digital systems evolve over time and are retired once no longer useful.”

Their article offers many hands-on recommendations to organizations interested in becoming EDR stewards, broken down into manageable ‘action items’ such as:

  • Committing to sustainable web design (tune back next week for our blog on this very topic!)

  • Assessing digital life cycles

  • Practicing responsible power consumption and recycling

  • Measuring emissions

  • Leading the way in crafting (and supporting!) EDR policy within your organization as well as in your country

And as they eloquently and poignantly remind us, “we don’t achieve a more livable planet without prioritizing the people on it... All this work must be driven by Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) that prioritizes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. We can’t transition to a clean economy unless everyone is on board. This is especially true in the predominantly white, predominantly male technology and sustainability industries.” Check out their article for the full breakdown of these and many other recommendations!

Becoming a Climate Literate Organization

If your nonprofit is interested in taking steps toward greening its carbon footprint at an organizational level, the Carbon Literary Project offers training for workplaces, educational institutions and communities. Participating organizations can also become accredited as Carbon Literate Organizations (CLOs) as belognong to one of four tiers – Bronze, Silver, Gold, & Platinum – ensure distinction between organisations of differing levels of commitment. As they write, “a Carbon Literate Organisation will typically experience a decreased in energy and resource consumption, improved organisational profile, healthier and happier staff, a healthier working environment, a safer supply chain, lower variable costs, enhanced competitiveness, and reduced commercial risk. CLO accreditation also demonstrates an organisation’s corporate social responsibility in the clearest possible way.”

If you’d like to get started, visit their How It Works and Getting Started pages to learn more. If you’re curious about carbon literary and would like to do some research, don’t miss their many resources ranging from e-learning modules, to toolkits, blogs and more.


Keep Reading

  • Designing for Sustainability: Create More People- and Planet-Friendly Digital Products (book)
  • The Climate Question: Can the Internet Ever Be Green? (BBC Podcast episode)
  • Infographic: The Carbon Footprint of the Internet (Climate Care)
  • How smartphones are heating up the planet (The Conversation)
  • Our Digital Carbon Footprint: What's the Environmental Impact of the Online World? (Reset)
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