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How Green Is Your E-mail? New Study Tries to Quantify Carbon Footprint of E-Mail.

email.jpgWe all know that e-mail is far superior to faxing or God-forbid, snail mail! But, how much greener is it?

That’s what a new project at Sun Microsystems is trying to find out. This new initiative attempts to measure the carbon footprint of individual e-mails with the hope of being able to quantify it for individuals and companies.

Email is a great application to try and measure the carbon footprint of, because it is universal and there are billions being sent everyday,” said Richard Barrington, head of sustainability and public policy at Sun in the UK. “It is not an easy task but we are looking at the mail servers, the different software applications used, the network devices and trying to extrapolate the energy used back to the email itself.”

While it is a given that electronic communication is better for the planet than older ways of communicating, it is useful to try to determine the actual carbon emissions associated with the IT systems involved in producing it. What quantity of energy is used to fuel IT equipment? Are some systems more efficient than others? How does choice of software and hardware impact the carbon footprint of electronic communication.
Sun hopes to determine best practices that lower carbon emissions and enable companies to benchmark their practices to the best in the industry.

There is a tendency to always see IT as additional,” (Barrington) explained. “For example, when Amazon emerged everyone said it would kill bookshops, yet the renaissance in reading it helped build means many bookshops are still thriving. That’s no bad thing, but it does have an environmental impact because the IT was additional to a business model. We need to look more carefully at areas like email, where genuine substitution with other less environmentally friendly measures can take place.”

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Photo Courtesy: PSD at Flickr under Creative Commons License

9 comments
  1. SRINI

    first, do i need to add this comment and add to the carbon emission? – LOL!

    Seriously this is news and turns on its head the green value of email and other electronic applications.

    Perhaps all forms of excesses and wastes must be eschewed and we should all try to live as frugally as possible in terms of usage any natural resource.

  2. Emma

    Hi – would be very interested to hear whether you did find out the carbon footprint size of emails as I would like to compare this to Direct Mail, the industry my company operates in? Thanks

  3. Shane Johnson

    This is indeed interesting… have any results been forthcoming? It would be very interesting to be able to quantify the carbon footprint of an email vs. a letter / statement sent via U.S. mail (i.e., what is the true “value” of switching on paperless delivery of notices, statements, etc.?). Does anyone know if this comparison has been done? I would love to see the analysis / data!!! 🙂

  4. diffid

    Is the issue here not whether email is better than fax etc, that’s a long dead no brainer, I’d have thought the issues are more to do with the preoccupation of companies to send html rather than plain text just so they can attach some bitmap image of their logo. html is verbose compared to plain text generating a bigger file size for the same message, then add a logo + the recipients logo as email clients generally respond in the format they receive so html email initiates a wasteful format for further correspondance, using a logo and or large signature pushes you onto further sheets of A4 should the email need or be required to be printed. Server storage, backup to tape/disk, archiving and transmittal of bloated html email all adds up, then there’s the way people will send a one word html email like ‘thanks’ + logo bitmap + signature and the ‘think about the environment before printing this email’ is a cop out on it’s own, sure every little helps but suggesting that the issue is printing on paper, it misses the point, doesn’t it depend partly on where the paper is sourced, from managed forests or not for example, location, shipping and concern for paper/toner/ink use but not efficiency of communication adding logos to be printed, initiating html conversation etc

  5. Sam Altshuler

    If you research the budget of the US Post Office, you’ll see that 10% of their budget goes to buying fuel. If mailing a letter with a 42 cent stamp on it is revenue neutral, then roughly 4.2 cents of fuel are consumed in delivering the average letter. That equates to about 0.02 gallons of fuel at $2/gallon. Burning fossil dervied fuel results in 20-25 pounds of CO2 being emitted per gallon of fuel. So, behold, each letter mailed in the US Post office causes about 1/2 pound of CO2 to be emitted into the air. Perhaps a similar amount is produced upstream in producing the paper, shipping the paper, handling the paper prior to mailing. I don’t know if we’re going to get any more accurate than this analysis. I recently heard that each Google search resulted in 7 grams of CO2 being emitted. This depends on the source of electricity for the servers. Calif. electricity is quite a bit cleaner than eastern utilities with coal plants. So 1/2 pound (200-300 grams) versus 7 grams…quite favorable to the electronic age.

    Sam Altshuler
    Senior Consultant (for hire)
    Air quality and carbon foot print analyses
    altshule@pacbell.net

  6. Lindon

    Just for starters:
    PC/Laptop/Cell phone –> Carrier (Modem/DSL/Fiber/Satelite) –> Servers. Mind you most of this is housed in climate controlled buildings and requires 7/24/365 up time and support. Also there is the software and infrastructure for that also climate controlled. As you can see email quickly adds up.

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