The other Berners-Lee brother

By | November 23, 2020

I was browsing the tech news this week and came across a story that you might have seen – either now or when the research was first published this time last year.  It’s about the environmental cost of sending an email – and I thought it was a really interesting example of how stories (particularly science ones) can spread.

So, back in 2010, Professor Mike Berners-Lee (brother of the famous Tim Berners-Lee who did a lot of early work on the internet) wrote a book.  It was a book full of rough, “back of the envelope” calculations of the carbon footprint of just about everything.  It’s called “How Bad are Bananas?” and it’s an interesting read if you’re into that sort of thing.

In that book, he estimated the energy cost of sending an email.  He tried to include all the energy that goes into doing that – the power to your PC and wi-fi router, the energy to send the information via the internet to email servers and so on.  And he came up with a rough number of 4g of carbon per email – not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but a little bit.  (A tiny fraction of the carbon cost of sending a paper letter.)

Professor Berners-Lee’s point in the book wasn’t “therefore we should send fewer emails”, but rather to make people generally more aware of how much energy computers and the internet use.  And in the context of the rest of the book, that made sense.

So far so good.

Fast forward to this time last year.  An energy company did a survey to find out how many emails people in the UK send on average, and how many of those emails were pretty pointless.  You know the ones I mean: “Thanks for that”, “Will do”, etc.

They then multiplied the number of useless emails by Berners-Lee’s estimate of the cost of sending an email and suddenly emails became Public Enemy Number One.

Missing his point entirely.

If, to send that unnecessary email, you deliberately turn your computer on, connect it to the internet and open your email app, then yes – the extra cost will be somewhere near the estimate in the book.  But how many people do that?  If you’re going to send a quick “thanks”, you do it straight after reading the email they sent you, so the extra cost is much lower.  Your computer is already on, and you’re already using your wi-fi and the internet.

The real message that we should be taking away from Berners-Lee’s book is that everything we do has an environmental cost.

In practice, keeping in touch with people (whether that’s sending a quick text message or an email, or having an hour-long video call) is all pretty small beans for the environment.  So please – now, more than usual – don’t feel bad about sending messages to your friends and family.

If you do want to try and reduce the environmental impact of your technology, the biggest difference you can make is to replace your kit less often and make sure when you do replace something, you recycle the old one.  Recycling a broken laptop, tablet or phone takes much less energy and causes less pollution than mining all the raw materials from scratch.

Anyway, that’s it from me for now.  If you’re interested in learning to use an Apple Mac, keep an eye out for my email at 10 o’clock tomorrow.

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