The hidden cost of emails

Jonas Doerr – Staff Writer

Gustavus students are very popular. At least, one would think so based on all the mail they get. Their inboxes are flooded with emails, which clearly makes it so they never feel lonely. If they ever get down, they can just open up a Monday Moment email and remember that President Bergman thought about them.
But these emails are not just sitting innocently in our inboxes!

A typical day for me consists of a barrage of emails.

I wake up in the morning to see four emails in my inbox. Then around nine I get one about the CAB events for the week. Professors send out emails about assignments, and other emails keep me posted on campus events. Just a few hours into the day, my inbox is already filling up.

In the last 24 hours alone, I have received 24 emails. That’s 168 emails a week, 720 emails a month, and 8,760 emails in a year. With 2,225 students on campus, that’s 19,491,000 emails a year. 19 million!

Of course, that does not account for the summer, when the email onslaught slows down. But students are receiving emails from other places than their student inboxes as well, so that number is probably a little low.
It may seem like that is no big deal. After all, those emails are just stored on our phones, right?
Actually, emails have a significant environmental impact. They have a carbon footprint first when they are sent and also as long as they sit in inboxes.
First of all, sending emails burns a small but meaningful amount of energy. Depending on the size of an email and how many attachments are connected to it, one email sends about four grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s because in sending it, the data travels through an internet router and to a couple stops like telecom companies before finally reaching a data center, where the email is stored in the cloud.
While sending each email individually actually is more environmentally friendly than sending a letter, as the emails accumulate the costs become more significant. Four grams is not much, but 19 million emails of four grams each is nearly 84 tons of carbon emissions. Cutting unnecessary emails can reduce this number.
But the real environmental impact is not coming from sending emails. The biggest impact comes from storing emails and other items in the cloud.
When something is stored in the cloud, it doesn’t end up on one’s phone or just out in the void of the internet somewhere. Cloud services like Gmail are provided by companies such as Google, who run massive data centers with computers to store all of that info. Those emails in one’s inbox actually are being stored on a computer owned by a company somewhere, along with everything on one’s OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud.

The problem with this is that the data centers holding your cloud-stored info are energy-guzzling machines. Not only do the data-storing computers require large amounts of electricity, but they also produce a lot of heat. To ensure that the computers don’t overheat, the companies have to employ huge air conditioning units, which also devour electricity.
Thus, your undeleted emails are sitting in a data center somewhere eating up electricity. Even if you don’t have many emails in your inbox, your Google Docs and cloud-stored files are also being stored in the data centers. The Stanford Magazine says that every 100 gigabytes (GB) of files one stores on the cloud sends .2 tons of CO2 a year into our atmosphere.
So what can we do about this ecological problem? First off, don’t stress out about sending emails. Most of these data-storing companies are actually carbon-neutral, which means they offset their emissions through other projects. Many emails are necessary to send, anyways.
However, consider avoiding sending emails that are not necessary. It can make a small but noticeable difference. More importantly, delete old files from your cloud storage. Look for old docs and videos that are being stored on your account and delete them. Check to see if there are any old emails in your inbox that can be deleted. This will lessen the load on the energy-consuming data centers.
While overall, emails have a comparatively small impact on the environment, it is good to consider how our actions on the internet are affecting our world. If we all did simple things like deleting old files, it would make a significant difference. You might even find there’s a sort of therapeutic release to be found in ending the existence of your endless emails.

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