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That joke is a real winner, but is emailing it around a real waste? While hitting send may feel harmless, your emailing habits could be causing a serious email carbon footprint. With new research showing an environmental cost, and other researchers concluding emails are a negligible drop in the ocean, is it really a concern at all? Before you send off yet another “Cheers”, have a look at what an email could really be costing.

What is an email carbon footprint?

Mike Berners-Lee is a professor in the environment centre at Lancaster University, UK, and advised OVO Energy (the UK’s leading independent energy provider) on the carbon energy used by emails. Berners-Lee told the UK’s The Guardian newspaper that every step and stage of email uses electricity. Beginning with typing a message on your computer, then the electricity used by the network to actually send your message, down to your message being stored on the cloud, and of course the electricity used by the massive data centres running the cloud itself. Berners-Lee says the carbon footprint of IT is already huge and continuing to grow.

So how “heavy” is an email?

Research released by OVO Energy in 2019 suggests that unnecessary emailing from Brits contributes 23,475 tons of carbon a year to the UK’s footprint. OVO estimates that 64 million unnecessary emails are sent per day in the UK. If every UK adult sent 1 less email a day, it could reduce the carbon output by 16,433 tons a year – equivalent to 81,152 flights from London to Madrid.

While the numbers are confronting, are they truly accurate? Berners-Lee admits they are estimates, while others suggest they’re outdated. Before the British government starts putting email sending on possible policy options for the global climate summit, Quartz suggests the carbon footprint of emails accounts for one-tenth of one percent of the UK’s total emissions – worth pondering on, but potentially not a number one priority. Along with more and more electricity sources becoming renewable and data centres becoming more efficient, perhaps emails are less worrying than we may have thought. Either way, there are things we can do to ensure we’re keeping our own email carbon footprint in mind.

Whether you find the numbers worrying or not, thinking about the culmination of emails shooting across even your own office can be dizzying. Carbon Literacy even equates three average office workers’ yearly received emails to the entire yearly carbon footprint of a person in India. But what can you do as an individual with an email account?

Recipient Validation

Spend time checking and validating your list of email recipients. This can improve your sending reputation and help to eliminate unnecessary email sends. Identify common problems in email addresses on your list including typos, non-existent mailboxes, or those with high bounce rates. This lowers the amount of emails being sent purposelessly, ensuring you’re sending to engaged recipients, and with the environment in mind. There are many programs available that can validate your send list easily and efficiently.

Monitor Unnecessary Emails

We’re all very familiar with replying to an email with “Received”, “Approved”, or even a simple “Thank You”. While we value politeness, perhaps it’s time to value a smarter carbon footprint even more. It’s been suggested that if each UK adult sent one less “thank you” email a day, the country would save over 16,000 tons of carbon a year. OVO Energy says that one or two word pleasantries top the list of most regularly sent unnecessary emails, along with LOL coming in at number 10, of course. 

While even OVO admits sending one less email won’t solve the climate crisis, it can improve our lives by reducing carbon.

Check Your Emails Thoroughly

Before you hit send, make sure you take some time to read through the information you’re sharing. By ensuring sufficient information and clarity, you can avoid a lot of unnecessary back and forth with simple questions and repetitive follow-up.

Avoid Heavy Emails

Reduce the size of your emails by lowering their resolution slightly, compressing images, and avoiding large HTML elements.

Choose to include handy hyperlinks rather than hefty attachments. Not only is downsizing your email a great way to prioritize your carbon footprint, it can also be helpful for your sender reputation and deliverability.

Only Save the Essentials

Aim to save or back up your most important emails only. Rather than automatically sending a message into the archives, ponder whether you really need it on hand. Go through your inbox and delete those emails that are needlessly taking up storage space. It’s simple for you and an easy encouragement for your users, too.

While researchers say emails are relatively low-impact, making simple changes to your email sending is an easy way to reduce your carbon impact – however small that reduction may be. Berners-Lee says while the impact of emails may not be huge, “it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment”.

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