Are you shopping online? Are you streaming music? What about being aware of how environmentally friendly you really are?

Let me admit it right away: I’m an online shopper. It’s simply too easy to resist. Whatever I want, literally at my fingertip: a new gadget, a new piece of equipment that is guaranteed to make me faster on skis, a new book.

Whether I’m at home in my living room or standing on the subway on my way to work – one simple click, and it will all be delivered right at my doorstep.

The goods I order come from all over the world. At the beginning of the 2000s, I lived in China, and got a whiff of the enormous opportunities for cheap shopping early on. Some of the things I buy are so cheap that I’m more than happy to take the risk they’re not functioning. And shipping costs? It’s free.

To me, it is often more convenient, faster and often cheaper to buy something online than to go to the store – even if it is from the other side of the earth.


How shopping online impacts the environment

But what about the carbon footprint of my online shopping? First of all, more shopping leads to more transportation. More transportation leads to larger emissions. Yes, some of the things I buy may have been shipped to Norway and sold here anyway. You could argue, then, that it doesn’t really matter how I buy my things. The situation is, however, that sending individual packages leads to far higher carbon dioxide emissions than transporting bulk quantities.

Online shopping is not always worse than going to the store itself. But I – and probably quite a few others as well – tend to buy more when everything is so easily accessible. Besides, returns of goods are much higher from online shopping than in physical stores. Swedish researchers who have looked into the topic have found that the returns in e-commerce were several times higher. Buying multiple sizes and returning the ones that don’t fit is one of the worst things you can do for nature.

My self-image as an environmentally conscious person is beginning to crack. It gets worse, when it turns out I am a very active participant in a digital wave that isn’t all that green when you look at what is going on at the end of the cables.


Rising consumption of energy

In addition to what goes into production and transportation, many of the things we buy run on electricity. The world requires ever more energy. So much, in fact, that coal consumption has almost doubled in the last couple of decades.

And even my browsing on Chinese online stores has a climate footprint. It is nice to know that Norwegian electricity comes from renewable sources, but the grid does not use only Norwegian electricity. Estimates vary, but the Internet and cloud services may be behind up two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are some of the ways you and I pollute the world through our online activities:

  • Streaming video and music – according to an American survey, ten minutes on Youtube equals 1g of CO2 equivalents. Not much, you might think, but when you consider that we watch over a billion hours of YouTube videos per day, the sum is huge. If you stream an album 27 times, producing a CD may actually have been better for the climate.
  • Bitcoin – a study by researchers at MIT and the Technical University of Munich recently found that the climate footprint of bitcoin equals about 22 million tonnes of CO2 – on a par with yearly emissions from Jordan or Sri Lanka. Perhaps a good thing the cryptocurrency hype seems to have slowed.


How conscious should we be in this digitalization age?

Does that mean that the use of digital technology only has negative consequences for our environment? Not necessarily. Abstinence from web browsing might not be what saves the world. But everyone can do something. And digital tools make it easier to understand where to begin. Here are some small pieces of advice:

  • Use a climate calculator to see where your biggest potential for improvement is. Here you will find several free calculators – both for businesses and for individual use.
  • There are also specialised calculators on industry level which you can use to evaluate your own company or your suppliers. The British Albert, is an example from the film and TV industry.

Some choices should be easy to make. Instead of traveling, do a video meeting next time. And remember to treat your computer and mobile phone nicely. If you make them last a bit longer, it will have a significant impact on your own footprint.