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Turning video off during Zoom calls found to lower emissions by 96 per cent

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Turning off your computer's video camera during Zoom calls could drastically lower its environmental impact, a study has found.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has driven a significant shift to remote working and more home entertainment, these activities still cause a significant environmental impact due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world.

Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming, for example, can emit up to 1,000g of carbon dioxide; require up to 12 litres of water and demand a land area adding up to approximately the size of an iPad Mini, according to researchers from MIT, Purdue and Yale University.

In comparison, a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits around 8,887g.

The study found that leaving your camera off during a web call can reduce these footprints by 96 per cent. Streaming content in standard definition rather than in high definition while using apps such as Netflix or Hulu also could achieve an 86 per cent reduction, the researchers estimated.

The study is the first to analyse the water and land footprints associated with internet infrastructure in addition to carbon footprints.

“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at environmental impact,” said Purdue professor Roshanak Nateghi.

A number of countries have reported at least a 20 per cent increase in internet traffic since March. If this trend continues through to the end of 2021, this increased internet use alone would require a forest of about 71,600 square miles - over half the area of England - to sequester the emitted carbon.

The additional water needed in the processing and transmission of data would also be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, while the resulting land footprint would be only slightly less than the size of London.

The team estimated the carbon, water and land footprints associated with each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and miscellaneous web surfing. As expected, the more video used in an application, the larger the footprints.

As data processing uses a lot of electricity - and any production of electricity has carbon, water and land footprints - reducing data downloads also reduces environmental damage.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. Without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed the study.

The internet’s carbon footprint had already been increasing before Covid-19 lockdowns, accounting for about 3.7 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The water and land footprints of internet infrastructure have largely been overlooked in studies of how internet use impacts the environment, Madani said.

While the carbon impact of video calls and the internet in general is significant, it can also lead to carbon savings by reducing the need to use transport networks to communicate.

E&T has created this graphic for you to use in your Zoom calls. Right-click to save the image below, then add this to your Zoom profile as your image to be displayed during video calls. You will still be able to participate in video calls, just with the audio side of the conversation only.

Zoom energy-saving profile pic

Image credit: E&T

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