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The Carbon Cost of Social Media

March 2023 by Sarah Walkley

Since the launch of the first social media platform SixDegrees in 1997, social media has become a feature of our everyday lives. Almost 3bn people have joined Facebook, which is getting on for half of the world’s population. Even relatively recent arrivals like TikTok now boast 1bn members. That’s a lot of data that is being created and stored, requiring significant amounts of energy. While spending a few minutes a day on our phones is far from the biggest impact we can have, our social media habits still contribute to our carbon footprint.

Reaching for our phones is one of the first things many of us do when we wake up. We check our email, WhatsApp messages and the latest posts on Facebook. Only then might we think about breakfast or that first cup of coffee.

The carbon footprint of social media varies significantly depending on the type of content, the technology the platform uses and the efforts that it has made to reduce its footprint. Video and images generally have a higher footprint, though, according to analysis by Greenspector, video-streaming service YouTube bags the prize for the lowest impact.

Greenspector measured the impact of the top 10 platforms. It accessed each of the sites using a Galaxy S7 phone to ensure comparability across platforms. The impact will differ, of course, depending on the device that you use.

Spending a minute on YouTube generates emissions of 0.46gCO2e. At the other end of the scale is TikTok, with a footprint per minute almost five times the size.

London to Edinburgh in a year

On average, we spend 145 minutes a day on social media. Taking average emissions of 1.15gCO2e per minute, Greenspector calculates an individual’s use of social media generates 60kgCO2e per year. We generate a similar amount by driving the 535km between London and Edinburgh in a small car.

Many of us travel that sort of distance in just a few days. So in the grand scheme of things, cutting back on how much we use LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter is not going to make the biggest difference at the individual level.

The negative aspects of our heavy social media use are well-documented, whether that is the psychological impact of seeing others’ carefully curated lives or the political impact of being trapped in an echo chamber, which reduces our exposure to a range of different points of view.

The carbon cost may be just another reason to be mindful of our social media use.
If you want to get to grips with your social media carbon footprint and what you can do to reduce it, the comparison website Compare the Market has turned the Greenspector data into a handy carbon calculator.

Cumulative impact

It’s also worth taking some time to think about the scale of social media use globally. According to Greenspector, there were 4.33bn social media users globally in May 2021. Across the 10 social media platforms the company looked at, their combined use adds up to 262m tonnes CO2e. That’s 0.61% of global emissions, or almost the same as the carbon footprint of Malaysia.
Perhaps together we can work to reduce that, one minute at a time.

Social media platforms compared

Platform gCO2 per minute
YouTube 0.46
Twitch 0.55
Twitter 0.60
LinkedIn 0.71
Facebook 0.79
Snapchat 0.87
Instagram 1.05
Pinterest 1.30
Reddit 2.48
TikTok 2.63

Source: Greenspector

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