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Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost

The massive shift to remote work due to COVID-19 has resulted in a huge reduction in emissions from vehicles and other sources, but it comes with costs of its own. A new study puts tentative carbon costs on the connectivity and data infrastructure that make working from home possible — and gives you an excuse to leave the camera off.
The researchers, from Perdue, Yale, and MIT, attempted to analyze the carbon, land, and water costs of internet infrastructure.
“In order to build a sustainable digital world, it is imperative to carefully assess the environmental footprints of the Internet and identify the individual and collective actions that most affect its growth,” they write in the paper’s introduction.
Using a single metric is too reductive, they argue: carbon emissions are a useful metric, but it’s also important to track the sources of the power, the water cost (derived from what’s needed to cool and operate datacenters), and the theoretical “land cost” needed to produce the product. If it sounds a little hand-wavy, that’s because any estimate along these lines is.
“In any calculation of this type at this global scale, you need to make a lot of assumptions and a lot of the data that you need are missing,” said lead study author, Yale’s Kaveh Madani, in an email to TechCrunch. “But it is a good start and best we could do using the available data.” (Madani noted that a lack of transparency in the industry, rather than a lack of statistical and scientific rigor, is the greater hindrance to the study’s accuracy.)
An example of their findings is that an hour of HD video streaming produces up to 440 grams of Carbon Dioxide emissions — up to 1,000g for YouTube or 160g for Zoom and video conferencing due differing video quality. For comparison, the EPA says a modern car produces 8,887 grams per gallon of gas. If you’re taking an hour of video meetings a day instead of commuting 20 miles to work, you’re definitely in the green, as it were, by an order of magnitude or more.
Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost
Image Credits: Madani et al
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