If COVID-19 has you down because your hair looks horrible or if you can’t figure out how to get the lighting just right — it’s OK, really, to just turn off that camera for your next virtual business meeting.

Tell your boss you’re helping the environment because you’ve read about a study done by some pretty esteemed universities that says so. Show him this story, and keep your jammies on.

Consider that just one hour of videoconferencing emits up to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, requires 2 to 12 liters of water and demands a land use adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini.

When factored across the demands of server farms, by leaving the camera off during a web call these footprints can be reduced by 96%.

And if you don’t really have to stream in high definition, don’t. By streaming content in standard definition on such platforms like Netflix or Hulu, researchers estimate those same carbon dioxide, water and land use reductions could be made by as much as 86%.

While global emissions dropped by record levels in 2020, the pandemic-prompted shift to remote work and the utilization of more in-home entertainment are presenting their own environmental challenges that are only expected to grow, researchers say.

The study done by Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the first to take a deep look at the water, carbon and water footprints associated with internet infrastructure.

It looked at the footprints of each gigabyte of data used in YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and 12 other platforms, in addition to online games and miscellaneous surfing. The research was not only isolated to the United States but took in the variation in footprint by country, gathering data from Germany, Brazil, China and Mexico, among others.

The data centers’ consumption of electricity accounts for 1% of the global energy demand and electricity has carbon, requires water and has its land use impacts as well.

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“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,” the study said. “A similar story may unfold if society continues to blindly transition to an unregulated and environmentally unaudited digital path, a transition that has been facilitated by the fourth industrial revolution and is now accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis.”

A number of countries, for example, reported at least a 20% increase in internet usage related to the pandemic starting in March 2020. If that pace continues through 2021, the global carbon footprint could grow as high as 34.3 million tons of carbon dioxide, the study predicts.

The predicted impacts?

  • The associated water footprint would be enough to fill 317,200 Olympic swimming pools.
  • The land footprint would occupy an area the size of Los Angeles.
  • Researchers say it would take a forest twice the size of Portugal to capture all that extra carbon dioxide.

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

The study was published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

Globally, data transmission and storage already equates to 97 million tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of Sweden and Finland combined. It requires 2.6 trillion liters of water, or enough to fill more than a million Olympic-sized swimming pools and demands the space of Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and New York City — combined.

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But there is hope to be had, with internet users who could take small actions such as shutting down video during a virtual meeting, reducing the quality of streaming services, decreasing gaming time, limiting time on social media — that should be an easy one given the political climate — and deleting unnecessary emails and other content on cloud-based storage.

Even unsubscribing from email lists can significantly reduce the environmental impact from internet use, according to the study.

Researchers estimate that if 70 million streaming subscribers were to lower the video quality of their streaming services, it would result in a monthly reduction of 3.5 million tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of eliminating 1.7 million tons of coal, or 6% of the total monthly coal consumption in the United States.

The same goes with that video component of virtual meetings. Turning off the video for, say 15 one-hour meetings each week, would avoid the same amount of emissions required to charge a smartphone each night for three years.

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If 1 million videoconference users were to make that change, they would avert the same amount of emissions from coal required to keep the lights on for a town of 36,000 residents for a month’s time, the study shows.

So go head, keep the ball cap on, wear your Mickey Mouse pajamas and tune into that virtual business meeting. You can even roll your eyes at the boss, or stick your tongue out. Just make sure that camera is turned off.