A new study by the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) suggests Brits' hidden data habits are carrying a higher carbon cost per year than round-the-world flights.

Research found that social photographers (most commonly using smart phones) are contributing over 355,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year through unwanted images alone - that's equivalent to the entire population of Chelmsford flying to Australia and back.

The IET discovered that Brits admit to taking an average of five pictures for every one they post online – with 10% even taking 10 or more. Doing so over a lifetime would equate to the emissions produced by driving from Land's End to John O'Groats.

Now the Institution has urged "happy snappers" to ditch any unused duplicated photos in order to slash their carbon footprint.

The study found that only a quarter of respondents delete additional shots they take, leaving millions of identical images being added to storage every week. And for those that do delete their excess pictures, fewer than one in six (16%) say they do this for environmental reasons (i.e., to reduce the burden of energy needed to power servers used to store our data dumps).

With the average person taking almost 900 photos per year, the duplicated, unwanted images left in storage alone could accumulate 10.6kg of CO2 emissions annually for every adult in the UK – the equivalent of over 112,500 return flights from London to Perth, Australia.

It’s not just social media habits that are damaging the planet, however. With nearly 80% of the population failing to consider the environmental impact of our data use online, "dirty data" habits could be silently contributing as much to global emissions as international air travel.

Reports suggest the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the essential systems supporting them account for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions – on par with the airline industry. Moreover, these emissions are predicted to double by 2025.

According to researchers, although many people are actively offsetting carbon to justify exotic trips, the vast majority by contrast (80%) fail to realise the damage scrolling, snapping, and signing up to that never-read email newsletter is also doing to the planet due to the carbon hungry energy it takes to service and store data.

The IET revealed some of the so-called "dirtiest data habits" amongst Brits to be:

  1. Failing to delete duplicated pictures from our phones (69%)
  2. Using two or more devices at once (almost 60%)
  3. Passive streaming – focussing on another device when streaming TV/ video content (52%)
  4. Failing to clear archives from messaging services e.g., WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger (63%)
  5. Holding onto old text messages (56%)

Passive streaming sessions were also highlighted as wasting concerning amounts of data – driving up the most invisible carbon footprints. While almost three quarters of people (73%) regularly stream content through services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, iPlayer, or Disney+, over half (52%) admit their attention is actually on their smartphone, not what they’re watching.

It’s estimated that one hour of video streaming generates a carbon footprint of approximately 55g CO2 . With Brits spending almost 40 hours per week on average watching streaming services and online videos, over the course of a year this amounts to over 113kg CO2 – the equivalent of driving from Cardiff to Carlisle, some 295 miles.

It’s not all bad news according to IET, however. The survey also showed a significant desire to be more sustainable (71%), with two thirds (66%) believing everyone has an individual role to play in protecting the planet from climate change.

Chris Cartwright, chair of the Digital Panel at the IET, said: "We’re really pleased to see the public becoming increasingly engaged in environmental debates. We want people to feel empowered to get involved and play their own part in tackling climate change and contributing to the journey to net zero.

"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 vast majority of data in the world today has been generated in the past two years; a trend showing no signs of slowing. This is why we all have a responsibility to change our habits.

"Deleting unwanted emails and photos, limiting use of the ‘reply all’ function, turning off auto-play on podcasts, Netflix or Amazon Prime and even having a ‘video off’ zoom day – these are all small changes people can easily make to lead a more sustainable online lifestyle."

The IET’s top tips to lower your data carbon footprint and be more sustainable online:

  1. Delete the duplicates: Make a habit of deleting all your duplicated photos – it’s fine to perfect that perfect shot for Instagram, but simply deleting unwanted shots could make a huge difference to your carbon footprint.
  2. Clean out your cloud: Don’t forget about your cloud storage. Clean this out regularly too to save much needed data space – and slash your emissions in the process.
  3. Wipe the WhatsApps: Let’s be honest, most texts, messenger service messages and WhatsApps from 2015 probably don’t need to be kept, so spring clean your messages, and get yourself in the habit of deleting old groups you don’t use anymore.
  4. Unsubscribe all: when you’re deleting emails from your inbox, take a minute to think about if you need to be subscribed to that mailing list at all. Save space, and the planet!
  5. Face-free day: Have a "video off" day when you can; if you don’t need your camera on for meetings, occasionally turn it off to save data.
  6. Step away from the phone: when watching TV or a streaming service put your phone away. Maybe even leave it in another room to resist the temptation to scroll as you watch. You’ll enjoy your show more and cut your carbon all in one simple move!
  7. Auto play; off: Switch off the "auto play next episode" function on your streaming services and use the handy "sleep timer" on your devices if you listen to music or podcasts as you drift off. Your cat doesn’t need to hear eight hours of True Crime or rainforest soundscapes!

Find out more about your data carbon footprint and how to develop more sustainable data habits via the IET website.

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