What’s more sustainable: an SMS, an instant message or an email? Have you ever wondered about the sustainability of your communications?
An overview of SMS, instant messages and emails worldwide
Worldwide, the use of mobile messaging and social apps (instant messages) is growing at a higher rate than any other mobile apps. In fact, Whatsapp is the most popular messaging app in the world with 1.2 billion monthly active users in January 2017. Facebook messenger, the Chinese services QQ mobile and WeChat make up for the remaining top 3. Still, in the US, the Facebook messenger is the most popular messaging app with 111 million active users, followed by Snapchat, Whatsapp and Google Hangouts.
While the average time spent per day with mobile messaging apps by adults in the US is expected to reach 12 minutes by 2019, most of this growth is due to instant messaging, as the popularity of SMS has been decreasing. On the other hand, it’s estimated that worldwide, 294 billion e-mails will be sent and received daily from 3,7 billion users in 2019.
All these communications mean that there are plenty of data flows taking place. Data flows consume energy and therefore, release CO2. So from an environmental perspective, it’s interesting to know what’s the most sustainable option. Should we use SMS, an instant message via an app or send an email? What’s is the most sustainable option?
SMS, instant messages and email: different technologies, different impacts
To start, it’s important we understand that sending an email, SMS or instant message has an environmental impact. A person could first think that the impacts of messaging have to do with the cell phone’s power. The cell phone needs electricity to work and to be able to send a message. That’s right. But the energy needed to manage, transport and store this data is what has the biggest ecological impact.
An SMS, an instant message or an email don’t share the same environmental impact. This happens because they don’t use the same technologies. Whereas SMS use the frequencies of conventional telephony, instant messages and emails use internet data flows. These are different ways of processing data that spend different amounts of energy.
The environmental impact of an SMS, an instant message and an email
Mike Berners-Lee wrote a book named “how bad are bananas?”. In this book, the brother of the inventor of the Internet talks about the environmental footprint of “nearly everything”. And he does it by presenting the different carbon footprints of various products.
A carbon footprint is a measure that allows the calculation of the total climate change impact of something by a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) metric. CO2e translates all different greenhouses gases into a comparable amount of CO2. As a result, products with different manufacturing and usage processes can be compared under the same metric.
A simple average email emits 4 g of CO2 and an SMS emits 0.014 g of CO2 – these are some of Berners-Lee calculations. Among other variables, he used data from cell towers, data transfers and data centers for his maths. Other researchers, like Frédéric Bordage from GreenIt.fr, estimate that an SMS with a maximum weight of 140 bytes emits 0.00215 g of CO2 (based on the data provided by Vodafone). Hence, we can say that SMS uses less energy and emits less CO2 than emails.
Regarding instant messages, there’s no concrete data yet that allows its carbon footprint to be predicted. However, since these communications use Internet networks, it’s reasonable to think that their carbon footprint is closer to the one of an email than to an SMS.
SMS is more sustainable but everything depends on the content
After this analysis, we can say that using SMS is more sustainable than using instant messages or emails. But if someone sends a message that exceeds 160 characters, several separate SMS messages will be sent and reassembled at the time of reading. This would increase the energy spent and change the maths a little.
We can still go a bit further when we think about e-mails and instant messages. These are places where we can add photos and different attachments like voice messages or documents. By adding these extra megabytes we’ll increase the message’s carbon footprint. The same happens with SMS: adding multimedia content turns them into MMS that no longer go through the same networks. So more than the kind of message sent, it’s mostly what’s sent that makes up for the carbon footprint. And more data to be processed will mean more energy used and more CO2 spent.
In summary: to act the most sustainably, choose to use SMS for small simple texts. For the rest, you’ll obviously need to use instant messages or email. In this situation, you can always try not to send too many images, videos or other heavy content. And last but not least – bear in mind the device you use to read your messages. Reading texts on a small screen phone consumes less power than reading an email on a large computer screen.
Does the way we send messages really matter?
In the end, all fights are important to preserve our planet and to contribute to sustainable development. Nonetheless, some fights produce greater results than others.
The world’s text messaging exchange is estimated to emit 32,000 tons CO2e per year. This carbon footprint is very small when compared to humankind’s total carbon footprint: 40 billion tons CO2e per year. In this way, one can easily see there are other more relevant battles happening on top of messaging and communication. The food or clothes we buy and our way of transportation are good habits to keep an eye on too.
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