TORONTO -- Looking for an excuse to turn your camera off during the next virtual meeting, besides Zoom fatigue? Tell the boss it’s saving the planet.

A new environmental study from Purdue University, Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found turning off the camera during Zoom or video meetings helps reduce a person’s carbon footprint of the call by 96 per cent.

“Many times in meetings, there’s only one person speaking or when I’m teaching in class, all the cameras are on. This is not necessary,” Kaveh Madani, who led the study, which was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, told in a video interview on Sunday.

The study also found streaming content in standard definition instead of high definition can cut down carbon dioxide levels of that activity by 86 per cent, which Madani said was “significant when you consider there are millions of us watching videos from around the world.”

According to a press release, it’s the first study of its kind to analyze the carbon, water and land footprint associated with internet infrastructure and video use, with the findings being pertinent as more people have shifted to working remotely and streaming more entertainment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of us don’t know about our how impactful our actions are… and how much we can help by taking simple, very simple actions and small steps,” Madani, an environmental scientist said, calling the study a “first step” in order to do that.

For example, a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about nine kilograms of CO2, but just an hour of videoconferencing can create up to 10 per cent of that (or one kilogram). Additionally, that same video meeting could require between two to 12 litres of water and a land area the equivalent to the size of an iPad Mini.

The authors explained the carbon footprint is largely due to how internet data is stored and transferred; as well as how data processing uses up a lot of electricity, which in turn, has carbon, water and land footprints.

Madani acknowledged that connecting over video is how many are coping with lockdowns, but he urged people, internet companies and their regulators to keep refining the “unintended consequences” of their actions, especially in the internet age when more people are connecting online.

“It is good that we don’t drive to meetings and we can meet each other over Zoom or other applications, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do better than this,” Madani, a visiting fellow at the Yale MacMillan Center, said. “So before it gets too late, we want to warn people about consumerism in the digital world and the thing we might not be paying attention to.”

The study found a number of countries have reported at least a 20 per cent increase in internet traffic since March, and if that trend continues by the end of 2021, it would require:

  • A forest roughly three times the size of Prince Edward island -- or 18,500 sq. km -- to sequester the emitted carbon;
  • 300,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water associated with data processing and transmission;
  • And a land footprint the size of Los Angeles


The researchers examined how many resources were associated with a gigabyte of data used by YouTube, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and 12 other platforms, as well as in online gaming and web surfing.

The findings were rough estimates based on publicly available and third-party data from Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S. But the authors urged for more public data on internet uses to be released by countries.

“These are the best estimates given the available data. In view of these reported surges, there is a hope now for higher transparency to guide policy,” Roshanak Nateghi, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering, said in a press release.

Madani agreed, saying, “we need to make this sector more responsible… some of them report their carbon footprint, but that’s not enough.”

Although there was a record drop in global carbon emissions last year, before COVID-19 lockdowns, the internet carbon footprint made up about 3.7 per cent of that. But authors pointed out that even that small proportion should be examined.

“If you just focus on one type of footprint, you miss out on others that can provide a more holistic look at [the] environmental impact,” Nateghi said.

He and the authors also urged more transparency from internet service providers, streaming services and app developers so consumers can make more informed choices and get a better sense of how their internet use fits in with their other habits affecting the environment.

“Unless we ask for that sort of information, service providers [and application companies] might not provide that because it affects their profitability,” Madani said. “But we have learned that we can make profit while also doing good things for the environment.”

“Hopefully there would be a day that we can make a choice between two or three service providers based on their environmental footprints.”