How carbon heavy is your email?


We all know that emails are much better for the environment than sending a letter - but, could they be made greener still?

That is the question behind research currently underway at IT giant Sun Microsystems as part of a project to measure the carbon footprint of individual emails.

"Email is a great application to try and measure the carbon footprint of, because it is universal and there are billions being sent everyday" - said Richard Barrington, head of sustainability and public policy at Sun in the UK. "It's not an easy task, but we are looking at the mail servers, the different software applications used, the network devices and trying to extrapolate the energy used back to the email itself."

The aim of the exercise is to try and prove, once and for all, that email has a significant environmental advantage, compared to other methods of communication. "Everyone in IT says that the social and environmental benefits outweigh the material impact of the technology itself" - observed Barrington. "But, if we want to prove that, we need to quantify that. If email is environmentally better than other types of communication, we need to be able to say by how much."

According to Barrington, the research can also go some way to promoting wider use of electronic communication as a means of curbing carbon emissions. "There is a tendency to always see IT as additional" - he explained.

"For example, when Amazon emerged, everyone said it would kill bookshops, yet the renaissance in reading that it helped build, means many bookshops are still thriving. That's no bad thing, but it does have an environmental impact because the IT was additional to a business model. We need to look more carefully at areas like email, where genuine substitution with other less environmentally friendly measures can take place."

The research will also hopefully allow firms to benchmark the carbon footprint of their own email systems against best practices. Barrington said that the resulting metric should allow firms to identify the policies and systems they could implement to ensure the carbon footprint from their emails are as low as possible.