Burning Energy: Video Conferencing's Pollution Problem - And How To Clean It Up

Zoom and other video conference calls may not be as much of an environmentally-friendly alternative to in-person meetings as many people assumed, according to a new study.

Video conference
Video conference Photo Credit: Pixabay/jagritparajuli99

But there’s a simple trick to make video conferencing even greener - turn off your camera.

Despite a record drop in global carbon emissions in 2020, a pandemic-driven shift to remote work and more at-home entertainment still presents a “significant environmental impact” due to how internet data is stored and transferred around the world, according to a study by Purdue University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, released on Thursday, Jan. 14.

One hour of videoconferencing emits about 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide into the environment, according to the study. The video also requires about 2-12 liters of water.

For comparison, 1 gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams.

However, by turning the camera off during a video call, the negative environmental output is reduced by 96 percent, study authors said.

The study applies to Netflix and other streaming services as well. While turning off the screen to watch Netflix would defeat much of the point, reducing the content to standard definition instead of HD cuts pollution by 86 percent.

Study authors warned that internet processing and storage pollution needs to be addressed. 

Countries around the world have reported at least 20 percent increases in internet traffic since March, the study noted. If this trend continues through 2021, the increase will require about 71,600 square miles of forest to sequester the emitted carbon, the study found. The water needed to process the added use would be enough to fill more than 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

“Because data banking processing uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has carbon, water, and land footprints, reducing data download reduces environmental damage,” the study found.

The study’s authors said that while many corporations like to say that going paperless or telecommuting are environmentally-sound ideas, the energy required to process and store that digital information is not so green.

“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. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, who led and directed this study as a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center.

See the full study at Purdue University online.

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