The Hidden Cost of Data Usage

If you have been following along with our Carbon Conversations campaign, you will have already learnt about the key topics that underpin the topic of carbon emissions. In our recent articles we have spoken in detail about the different carbon scope classifications, embodied carbon, carbon neutrality vs net zero and the complex relationship between carbon accounting and the circular economy. It is our goal to equip organisations with the information they need to approach carbon accounting and the entire carbon conversation with confidence.  

It is now widely understood that the main sources of carbon emissions in the UK are power, transportation and buildings which collectively account for 84% of total UK emissions. In this article, we are switching it up and focussing on the lesser-known causes of carbon emissions that are not as widely discussed – what we are calling ‘Carbon Culprits’.  

The Hidden Cost of Data usage  

Contributing to around 4% of global CO2 emissions, data usage is perhaps one of the biggest carbon culprits that is often overlooked. What’s more this figure is set to double by 2025.  

In 2022 data is everywhere! Most of us have multiple devices with access to data on our phones, laptops, tablets and computers at all times. It is estimated that 8.5 billion Google searches are made, 333 billion emails are sent, and 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.  

How often do you stream a podcast or listen to music when you take the dog for a walk? In your job, how much of your working day is spent at the computer making internet searches or creating data inputs? These seemingly harmless actions do in fact take a negative toll on our planet.  

 A shocking example of the true carbon cost of data usage is the posts from the most followed man on Instagram Cristiano Ronaldo. Every time he posts an image to his 483 million followers, it consumes roughly 36 megawatt hours of energy. That’s the equivalent of adding 10 UK households to the grid for one year. And that is just one person and one post. Imagine the carbon cost of Instagram’s 2 billion global users! 

Another example of the carbon cost of data usage is the 2017 hit single ‘Despacito’. The most widely streamed record of all time featuring Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber has a huge 4.6 billion plays! While the song was undoubtedly very catchy and had many of us dancing around our kitchens singing along (more often than not butchering the beautiful Spanish language), it used as much electricity as the combined annual consumption of Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic. What's more, the carbon footprint of that song is equivalent to roughly the annual emissions of about 100,000 taxis.

 Now we are not saying that you shouldn’t post on social media or enjoy the sweet sounds of Justin Bieber, we post regularly on Instagram (please follow us) and Spotify can be heard blaring from the speakers of our global offices every day. However, what we are saying is that we all must have an understanding that the decisions we make daily have an associated environmental cost. The price vs the cost is something you’ve probably heard us speak about a lot if you are familiar with our content. What do we mean by this? When we buy anything, the price is the first thing we see and often the only thing we consider. However, with 99% of the products/services we use there is an associated environmental cost. A lot of online services we use seemingly don’t have a price or a cost, but the reality is that in order to power these services there is a significant environmental cost.  

Emails are a prime example of this. A standard email generates 4g of carbon dioxide and an email with numerous and long attachments generates 50g! When we take into account that over 300bn emails are sent every day you can start to see the scale. Again, we are not saying don’t send emails. We are asking people to consider whether the thumbs-up email is really worth the carbon cost and if it could be expressed verbally. Videoconferencing is also something we don't ever see the true cost of. Having your camera on during a meeting is seen as polite but it is also 97% more energy intensive than a phone call. Most of us don’t think twice about jumping on a Teams call but is it always necessary? 

Here are 4 things you can do RIGHT NOW to reduce your environmental impact and help create a sustainable future. 

How Techbuyer is making a difference 

Quality Refurbished IT Devices 

Although data usage is undoubtedly a carbon culprit, the very devices we use to access this data can be just as bad. As a leading reseller of refurbished tech, you'd expect us to say this, but buying refurbished really makes a difference. An average laptop requires about 300kg of carbon and 190,000 litres of water to manufacture. When you buy refurbished, it eliminates this process. 

At Techbuyer, we are working to create a truly circular IT economy with a thriving secondary IT market. By opting for quality refurbished IT (which we have proved can outperform new with the right upgrades) you can avoid the embodied carbon that is associated with buying new hardware as no additional manufacturing has been required. While listening to Justin Bieber on a refurbished laptop will still incur a carbon cost, he will sound that little bit sweeter when you know that you have already saved carbon emissions by buying refurbished. We recognise this isn't a perfect solution, but it is certainly a start.  

Making Data Centres More Efficient  

Perhaps the area where we can have the biggest impact is data centre sustainability. The data we access daily (Google searches, emails, Instagram, etc.) all come from huge data centres, large groups of networked computer servers that primarily store, process and distribute large amounts of data. Research suggests that, by 2025, 3.2% of the world’s carbon emissions will come from data centres. It is our goal to provide organisations with quality refurbished data centre equipment so that carbon can be saved by avoiding unnecessary manufacturing.  

We are investing time and resources to help create a more sustainable data centre industry. Our sister company Interact has created the world’s first vendor-neutral server efficiency tool that has the potential to reduce the global carbon emissions of the sector by 50% and the world's total carbon emissions by 1% (the equivalent of the entire aviation industry). Learn more about Interact here. Techbuyer’s Sustainability Lead Astrid Wynne is also the Chair of the Data Centre Alliance – a not-for-profit trade association that supports data centre organisations with best practise on server efficiency and sustainability. Astrid recently co-authored this year's DCA data centre sustainability best practice publication this year.  


99% of the data we use incurs a significant carbon cost. We are on a mission to help create a more sustainable IT industry by providing quality refurbished IT hardware to organisations around the world (as well as a range of other sustainable IT solutions) and educating people on the true carbon cost of IT services & manufacturing. To learn more about carbon and start your journey towards carbon clarity, check out our previous Carbon conversations blogs here. 

In the latest instalment of Carbon Conversations, we talk about upcoming carbon legislation and the top three strategies that organisations can employ to cut carbon emissions whilst maintaining or even boosting performance. Read the full article here. 

Start your Carbon Conversation 

Here at Techbuyer, we believe the carbon conversation cannot be put off; everyone needs to be open to learning more, finding solutions and reconsidering our carbon emissions for a sustainable future.

This piece is part of our series designed to offer digestible information, thought-provoking discussions and sustainable solutions for having the carbon conversation and working as a collective to reduce our environmental impact on the planet.

Get in touch to start your carbon conversation.

Learn more about key definitions on core carbon topics, such as life cycle assessment, carbon neutrality and net zero, embodied carbon and Scope 3 below.

Let’s have a carbon conversation.