Regulate internet use like the donor register: make economical settings standard and push for digital etiquettes.

The Netherlands is working hard to replace oil and insulate houses, but in the meantime, the ecological footprint of our digital behavior is growing exponentially. Video streaming, video calling and online gaming generated 15 times as much digital traffic in 4 years. This saves kilometers of traffic jams, but also costs an enormous amount of energy, servers and cables. If we do not adapt our behavior, our internet use could require 20% of the total global electricity demand in 10 years, calculates the French think tank The Shift Project.

The CO2 emissions from that much extra electricity would be almost as high as those of a country like the US, while we actually need to reduce those emissions. The European Union is working hard to expand the CO2 trading rights system ETS. Last December, the European Parliament and governments reached an agreement on new pricing for CO2 emissions. As soon as this becomes a European law, large companies will receive fewer free emission allowances, the allowances will become more expensive and consumers and small companies will also have to pay for their emissions.

Fortunately, there are a number of simple steps that internet users can use to significantly reduce their online CO2 emissions. Clear up your email inbox and omit attachments, minimize your cloud, turn off your camera, switch to a lower resolution, and share only what’s important, with those to whom it matters… these interventions should all be part of our digital literacy, our digital etiquette.

New digital etiquettes

Social media algorithms encourage us to share a lot, while every post, share and like contributes to CO2 emissions, raw material shortages, overstimulation, and social pressure. We need to look for a new digital etiquette with new manners, including for marketing and social media. It is time to align our digital lifestyle with our sustainability ambitions so that we learn to use the internet in a way that shows respect for people and nature.

Individuals can make a big difference with this, but if we do this at a company level, we have even more impact. Entrepreneurs can do good not only by making their fleet more sustainable, but also by minimizing the “tree stock” that would be needed to offset the CO2 emissions of their digital behavior. Give employees a data limit and set a maximum on the number of messages they share online. Focus on quality instead of quantity. Of course, this will also have social effects.

What would be a Digital Etiquettes? An explicit conversation on the use of various digital communication tools and channels. This can be supported by actions to agree upon. By moving large files from the server to your hard drive and simply sending less, every internet user can contribute to reducing CO2 emissions today. You can often make a big difference by adjusting a few settings in your favorite apps. Just turning off the ‘autofill’ option in your search engine saves an average user more than 100 kilos of CO2 every year.

The German Öko Institute has calculated how much CO2 such behavioral changes can save. It estimates that loading a piece of text for 30 seconds costs 0.003 watt hours. For a picture this is 0.304 watt-hours and for a video 0.403 watt-hours. Then you need to take into account how many people view a post, how many of them repost the post, and to how many followers.

Anyone who has 100 followers, posts a message with an image once a day and occasionally sends a short video clip, needs about 1 tree per year to compensate for their CO2 emissions. Anyone who does the same with 10,000 followers quickly needs 141 trees every year (you can calculate this on . In other words: popularity seems nice, but it is not without obligation. It might be better to have 100 followers who are really interested than 10,000 who are only half-watching. We will really have to send less data back and forth in the coming years, because Europe is not big enough to be able to plant so many trees all the time, and the earth does not grow with it.

Citizens, companies and policymakers should also make a joint stand against the major social media and software suppliers so that they set sustainable options as standard. Consider, for example, not playing videos automatically, compressing files by default when sending, or turning off the ‘auto-complete’ function. Files that have been played multiple times can be downloaded – as can any cloud data that has not been used for more than a year. As far as we are concerned, these options are set in the same way as with the donor register: the energy-efficient settings become standard, and anyone who wants something different must make an effort.

This article was originally written in Dutch and was published as an opinion article in NRC on 28-02-2023. Resources for this article can be found in the resource section on Important sources this article refers to are: Greenhouse gas emission intensity of electricity generation by country — European Environment Agency (, Cisco Annual Internet Report – Cisco, Digitaler CO2-Fußabdruck ( and Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf (