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Carbon Footprint of Spam: Hello, the Internet Uses Energy

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The recent report touting the carbon-heavy footprint of email spam could end up sending online do-gooders into a tizzy downloading the latest in anti-spam software. Yes, McAfee — the computer security company that issued the report along with carbon consulting firm ICF International — would like that (it sells anti-spam tools). But the numbers are still shocking on a first glance: email spam uses 33 billion kWh per year, emits 17 million metric tons of carbon per year, or 0.3 grams of carbon per spam message, and is equivalent to 0.2 percent of the total global carbon emissions. So yes, spam sucks and here’s yet another reason to hate it. But in terms of energy used by the Internet and computing in general, let’s keep those numbers in perspective.

First off, ICF also says that the average normal email emits around four grams of carbon. Regular email requires energy — a lot more than spam email. And Google (s GOOG) has said that an average Google search query results in about 0.2 grams of CO2 emissions (while there were some issues with the original Google carbon search report, that’s their official figure). Always-on web services like our dearly-beloved Twitter suck up considerable energy, too. So, surprise! It takes energy to run the Internet. What these numbers don’t account for is how much energy the Internet saves from moving to a digital world, but I’ll leave that for another discussion.

Second, the findings of the spam report are a little blurry. As Jeremy Kaplan at GoodCleanTech points out 80 percent of the energy-use and carbon emissions related to spam email come from “viewing and deleting spam” or “searching for legitimate email erroneously trapped in spam filters,” called false positives. While the report doesn’t flesh out what is specifically consuming that energy, it’s gotta come largely from your computer — maybe a bit from your email account or Internet connection. But basically if your computer is on and you’re connected to the web your energy consumption and carbon emissions are in the same ballpark regardless of spam. As Kaplan writes:

Do people turn on their PCs, read their email, and then turn them off? Or would their PCs simply be on anyway? . . . Business users leave their PCs on all day regardless of whether they’ve finished sorting their inboxes, so in my eyes you can’t count any of the energy exhausted by their PCs.

In my case, I don’t even actually spend any time viewing, deleting, or searching through spam — My Google-powered email sequesters some, but I mostly just ignore any that comes through. So does that mean I’m not responsible for my share of carbon emissions from spam, even through my account is full of it, too? Who knows.

The last point I want to make is one that Harvard University Environmental Fellow Alex Wissner Gross and Wired writer Alexis Madrigal skooled me on when the Google carbon footprint report came out. Let’s look at the bigger picture and utility of the information we find. Sure, it’s interesting to look at the numbers for spam or Google searches and carbon emissions, but if wasted energy in data centers via cooling, or inefficient IT hardware is a much bigger culprit contributing to the carbon footprint of the Internet, then let’s help put all this new carbon footprint data coming out in perspective — instead of rushing out and downloading anti-spam tools.