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EMAIL AND THE ENVIRONMENT | Globe Editorial

Don’t forward those photos

September 7, 2010

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MOST PEOPLE take for granted the Earth-friendly nature of electronic communication. Paperless, ink-free, no shipping supplies, no gas for transportation: the environmental benefits of virtual communication are obvious. But the reality is more complicated, at least according to a growing number of concerned technology experts and scientists. Vast stockpiles of digital data waste energy, too.

Everyday emails aren’t to blame. But large photo and video attachments, cluttered inboxes, and massive email forwards may be. Some analysts estimate that emailing a 4.7-megabyte attachment — the equivalent of four large digital photos — can use as much energy as it takes to boil about 17 kettles of water. The problem is magnified when large emails are forwarded to many people and left in inboxes undeleted. As long as emails remain in your inbox, the data they create is physically stored somewhere.

And that’s where the problems arise: The total amount of digital storage worldwide is approaching 1 zettabyte, or 1 million times the contents of the Earth’s largest library. Currently, that information is archived on equipment with a mass equivalent to 20 percent of Manhattan. Global data storage is expected to reach 35 zettabytes by 2020, which means more equipment, land, and energy. The information industry already accounts for approximately 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the same amount as the airline industry blasts into the atmosphere. Coupled with the rapid increase in stored data, it’s an unsustainable scenario.

Technology firms must create systems that store data with less energy, and governments should provide incentives for them to do so. Just as important, consumers must demand products that save energy, and use websites like Flickr and MediaFire that allow them to share large files without emailing. Better still, they could consider keeping some of those embarrassing photos and home videos to themselves.

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