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Cut the Zoom Video Feed: The Environmental Costs of Remote Work and How Workers Can Reduce Their Footprint

  • Researchers analyze the carbon, land, and water costs of remote work
  • Work from home arrangements have cut emissions substantially due to the elimination of commutes, but increased internet use has its own environmental impact
  • Study advises turning off the camera during video conferencing and reducing video quality to help minimize impact

If you’ve grown tired of choosing Zoom backgrounds or sharing your home with your co-workers through video conferencing, now you have the perfect excuse to shut off the camera: saving the planet.

A recent study by researchers at Perdue University, Yale University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sought to analyze the effect of internet infrastructure on carbon emissions, as well as land and water use. Remote work has led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, since more employees are completing their duties at home and foregoing the commute, but the effects of increased internet usage have often been overlooked.

The researchers found that worldwide internet usage has increased 15 to 40 percent during the pandemic, resulting in added electricity demand of approximately 42.6 million megawatts. This has resulted in an estimated increase of 3.2 million metric tons of carbon emissions related to internet usage, along with 1.8 trillion liters of water used for data center cooling purposes. The study also determined that the land footprint related to internet usage has grown by 100 million square meters.

While the environmental effect of internet usage has been increasing, it still accounts for only a small share of overall emissions. Before the pandemic, 3.7 percent of global greenhouse emissions were attributed to the internet.

Video streaming results in much lower emissions than driving, with the typical car putting out 8,887 grams of carbon emissions per gallon of gasoline. By comparison, high-definition video streaming produces about 1,000 grams of carbon emissions per hour while the lower quality of video conferencing produces about 160 grams per hour.

The report suggests that cutting video quality, or shutting off the video entirely, can greatly reduce this impact. Researchers say turning off the camera when it isn’t needed during video conferencing cuts emissions by 96 percent, while lowering video streaming from high quality to standard quality reduces emissions by 86 percent.

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