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“The internet is so ubiquitous, we may not realize the environmental costs.”


The surprising reason you should turn your webcam off during meetings

You can take a meeting in pajamas and save the environment at the same time. That's the unexpected finding from new research about the value in leaving your camera off during web conference meetings.

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Do you find it a little strange when someone has their camera off during a video conference meeting? Why do they get special dispensation? And what are they doing?

Statistics from the past year show that you might not be alone in asking yourself that very question. More and more people were working from home because of Covid-19, and Zoom boomed.

Perhaps those people with their cameras off are doing their bit to save the environment. According to a new study out of Purdue University, there are simple things we can all do to lessen our environmental footprint when it comes to living and working online.

The first step is turning off your camera during video meetings, watching less high-definition videos, and limiting social media usage. The little things you may not think about add up, especially on a global scale when millions are spending more time inside.

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“Society at large should recognize the power of collective action in reducing the environmental footprint of the internet to avoid paving an irreversible path to an unsustainable digital world,” the researchers write in their paper, “The Overlooked Environmental Footprint of Increasing Internet Use,” published in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling.

“Small actions such as turning off video during a virtual meeting, reducing the quality of streaming services, decreasing gaming time, limiting time on social media, deleting emails and unnecessary content on the cloud-based storage services, or unsubscribing from email lists can significantly reduce the environmental footprints of internet use," write the authors of their study.

The strategy — Cutting down on internet usage may seem difficult, but there are small things one can do to reduce the size of their carbon footprint. These include turning off your camera during online meetings with many participants or watching certain videos in standard definition. The researchers found Zoom and Netflix were the biggest drivers of CO2 emissions.

Why this strategy matters to you — Internet usage has a carbon footprint that ranges from 28 to 63 grams of CO2 per gigabyte, a water footprint ranging from 0.1 to 35 liters per GB and a land footprint ranging from 0.7 to 20 square centimeters per GB, according to the paper. A standard video conferencing service uses about 2.5 GB per hour and has a carbon footprint of the equivalent of 157 grams of CO2 per hr.

The extrapolations of this seemingly small measure are really kind of wild:

  • “If one were to have 15 one-hour meetings a week, their monthly carbon footprint would be 9.4 kilograms CO2e,” the researchers write.
  • “Simply turning off the video, however, would reduce the monthly emissions to 377 grams CO2e. This would save the emissions of charging a smartphone each night for over three years (1151 days).
  • "If 1 million videoconference users were to make this change, they would collectively reduce emissions by 9,023 tons of CO2e in one month, the equivalent emissions of powering a town of 36,000 people for one month via coal.”
“The internet is so ubiquitous... we ... may not realize the environmental costs.”

Renee Obringer, a Purdue graduate student and a co-author of the study, tells Inverse that the study is a call to action.

“The internet is so ubiquitous to our lives now, particularly as many people continue to work remotely, that we as consumers may not realize the environmental costs associated with it,” she says.

“That isn’t to say that people should never use video while working remotely, but even limiting video use to a few times a week has a benefit. An analogy would be dietary choices — in terms of environmental benefits, research has shown that replacing red meat with white meat leads to a reduction in carbon footprints, but occasionally eating vegetarian can further reduce your footprint.

"In this sense, turning off video a few times a week is another activity to further reduce your environmental footprint in addition to any benefits gained from a reduction in commuting.”

How you can implement this strategy — If you are a manager or leader of a business, encourage your employees to turn their cameras off during company-wide calls and only turn them on when they’re speaking.

“The largest benefit would come from larger groups, which is also one of the easier times to turn off your camera,” Oberinger tells Inverse. “For example, if you are in a virtual seminar with one speaker, the audience doesn’t necessarily have to turn on their video when they aren’t actively participating in a discussion.”

Obringer added that the researchers want to see more action taken on the part of tech companies “to provide consumers with more detailed information on the impact of using various online services.”

“If, for example, users knew that streaming a video in 4K had an environmental footprint that was seven times larger than streaming in standard definition, they would be able to make an informed decision on their video quality selection,” Oberinger says.

“Additionally, we hope our study will encourage companies to work toward further reducing their environmental footprint, including water and land footprints, which are often overlooked. Finally, our study calls for regulators to incentivize companies to be more transparent, as well as work toward limiting the environmental footprint of their services.”

The strategy's side effects — Zoom meetings can stress us out. Introducing company policies that ask participants to shut their cameras off can actually lead to less stress for them.

According to Bond University’s Libby Sander and Oliver Bauman, people can be self-conscious about the state of their remote workspaces or the possibility of someone walking in the background. Meanwhile, looking at our own faces can be stress-inducing. Turning off cameras during meetings helps people avoid both of these stressors.

The Inverse analysis — We often assume that conducting activities online doesn’t have any impact on the environment. But as this research from Purdue and other studies show, our appetite for instant gratification and high definition video comes at a cost.

Watching less and turning off our cameras during video calls are simple things we can do to cut down our environmental footprints while working from home.

Abstract: The environmental costs of adopting new technologies and habits are often recognized too late, typically when changing the adopted technologies and behavioral norms is difficult. A similar story may unfold if society continues to blindly transition to an unregulated and environmentally unaudited digital world, a transition path that has been facilitated by the fourth industrial revolution and is now accelerated by the global COVID-19 crisis. The newly developed digital lifestyle has major environmental benefits, including the reduction of travel-related CO2 emissions. Yet, increased Internet use has some hidden environmental impacts that must be uncovered to make the transition to a low carbon and green economy successful.

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