Getting the bottom of that asinine article about the CO2 footprint of email

I keep seeing people online talk about this piece in the Guardian.

I shared this thread when it first came out, as it made me pretty angry before, but I think I need to expand on it now, as it Just. Won’t. Die.

I’m miffed because this is the digital version of talking entirely about personal actions and shaming people for them, instead of taking a step back and also focussing on systemic problems, and there’s almost no analysis about how the story got published in the first place.

The problem is not email, the problem is journalism being complicit in poorly thought through marketing and PR stunts.

Look your inbox, then look at your sent messages in your email program.

Because email newletters are one the most reliable ways of reaching people, and because they’re a cornerstone of any comms campaign, you’re very likely to have received many more newsletters, often automated ones, than outbound emails sent by humans. What’s more, these email newsletters are often huge, to provide more chances to engage and click through for each call to action.

If you compare the impact of just the transmission of sending data, the impact of organisations sending hundreds of newsletters will dwarf the occasional reply by a human, and focussing on the individual is utterly stupid.

In fact, you can see this, because the journalist at least had the decency to link to the original Ovo Energy Press release talking about how green they are, and how responsible they are for bashing together an an email tracking chrome extension they call Carbon Capper. Here’s the specific bit from the press release:

To help combat the issue, OVO Energy has created the world’s first carbon reducing Chrome Extension – Carbon Capper. When downloaded, the extension identifies when the user has hit send on a potentially unnecessary email, sending a prompt to ensure more thoughtful email traffic. The Extension tracks word count, flagging emails under four words, and allows users to keep a close eye on their individual email carbon footprint.

Here’s a screenshot. It basically tells you not to hit reply to emails.

What you should do instead

If you care about the environmental impact of tech, worrying about email is not the place to spend your time and energy.

Worry instead about the big tech companies accelerating the extraction of fossil fuels, when we need to keep them in the ground. Read pieces like this from people who leave these companies, like this one by Bruce Hahne when he left Google:

If Google’s cloud and AI/ML technology can reduce the overall costs of finding, extracting, and processing oil and gas, and reduce the cost of oil and gas power plants by even 1% — and I certainly could believe that 1% is possible — the results for the planet will be dire. More large-scale investment dollars diverted to oil and gas, more oil and gas refineries built, more oil and gas extracted, while zero-carbon energy generation gets deployed more slowly, or simply not deployed at all because the capital investment is going into cheaper oil and gas. That’s how we die by fire – one cost-reducing Google cloud service at a time.

(snip)

The harm that Google Cloud will do to the planet, if it reduces underlying costs of this industry by even a small percent, completely dwarfs the data center decarbonization work.

Bruce Hahne, in his resignation letter

Worry instead about consulting companies you admire doing the same, and helping the same oil and gas companies, but keeping quiet about doing so.

Worry about how blase we are about flying when it makes up a significant chunk of company emissions in many tech consultancies and enterprise sales teams.

Below are the figures from Accentures 2018 CSR report. The dark chunk is from flying in each year.

In Apple’s own CSR reports, once you have taken away emissions from making hardware, aviation makes up nearly half of the left over emissions, and the story is the same across many, many companies.

If you work in tech and want to speak to others about this.

I help organise ClimateAction.tech, an online community, to create a space for people who identify as working in tech (you don’t need to be a programmer!), to talk about how to use the skills, influence and relatively high degrees of professional mobility we’re lucky enough to have to effect some change.

We do introductions each week, and you can join below.

https://climateaction.tech/