Climate change: Posting pictures online and storing emails are contributing to crisis, says report

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A picture may paint a thousand words, but it might also be contributing to the climate crisis. 

A new survey is calling us out for what it calls our "dirty data" habits - the storing of millions of unnecessary photos and videos on servers around the world, creating a carbon footprint which researchers say is as big as that of the airline industry.

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The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), which commissioned the research, estimates that the average UK adult takes almost 900 photos a year, with an average of five photos taken for every one posted online.

The duplicated and unwanted images left in storage accumulate 10.6kg of CO2 emissions per person annually, based on the energy used and carbon footprint generated by data storage, either personally or on shared servers.

What it terms "dirty data" also includes unnecessary data streaming and downloading, and storage of emails and messages.

The total CO2 generated in the UK alone from unneeded stored data, according to the report, is the equivalent of 112,500 return flights from London to Australia.

Individually, the carbon footprint our unused data generates over a lifetime is equivalent to driving from Land's End to John O'Groats.

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Chris Cartwright, Chair of the Digital Panel at the IET said: "Until now, a lot of the noise on carbon emissions has been focused on the big contributors - the aviation, transport, and food industries - or costly and disruptive solutions such as solar panels, micro-generation, storing energy using power walls and heat pumps. But the story doesn't stop there.

"In our ever more connected lives, the data we now rely so much on also comes with a hidden carbon cost. Unsurprisingly, most of us don't realise that our use of cloud storage means huge, power-hungry data centres are needed."

The IET says the vast majority of data in existence has been generated in the past two years; a trend it says shows no signs of slowing.

To lead a more "sustainable online lifestyle" it recommends: deleting unwanted emails and photos, limiting use of the 'reply all' function on emails, turning off auto-play on podcasts, and digital streaming services, and having 'video off' zoom days.

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