Research in 2019 by expert survey consultants Censuswide, commissioned and publicised by OVO Energy, revealed that more than 64m ‘unnecessary’ emails are sent every day. One result of this is the emission of nearly 23,500 tonnes of additional carbon, in the UK alone, every year.
OVO Energy claims that ‘brief pleasantries top the list of the most regularly sent emails’, and that by sending one less ‘thank you’ email a day Brits would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year — which, they say, is equivalent to 81,152 flights to Madrid, or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road.
|Top 10 most ‘unnecessary’ emails sent:|
|1. Thank you||6. Have a good evening|
|2. Thanks||7. Did you get/see this?|
|3. Have a good weekend||8. Cheers|
|4. Received||9. You too|
|5. Appreciated||10. LOL|
Intrigued by this ‘think before you thank’ argument, I looked for the research data. I couldn’t find it. I asked OVO Energy for access to it§; my request was refused on the grounds that they hadn’t yet finished with the data.
The Internet came on the scene relatively recently. It has brought with it substantial behavioural changes. Some of these changes are for the good: others (see ‘meanderthal‘ for instance! 🤪) are not so good. Those who have grown up with the Internet constantly in the background cannot fully appreciate the impact of its advent in the way that those of us who were born without it can, any more than I, born — in England — more than a dozen years after the end of World War II, can truly understand the horror of war.
More societal changes are in the pipeline due to the ever-worsening problem of climate change. To counter this — assuming that we even can — it will be necessary to modify our behaviour further.
“Whilst the carbon footprint of an email isn’t huge, it’s a great illustration of the broader principle that cutting the waste out of our lives is good for our wellbeing and good for the environment. Every time we take a small step towards changing our behaviour, be that sending fewer emails or carrying a reusable coffee cup, we need to treat it as a reminder to ourselves and others that we care even more about the really big carbon decisions.”Mike Berners-Lee, author, researcher
— and brother of Tim, inventor of the World Wide Web
There are many differences between the written word and face-to-face communication. Smileys and word choice can go only so far in curbing misunderstandings. The question whether there is a need for digital communication to mirror the politeness we’re used to ‘IRL‘ is a good one.
However, almost all of the ‘thank you’ messages I send are tacked on to other content; I find it very hard to believe the claim that these ‘top the list’. (Maybe I’m just uncouth?) But, in any case, is it right to dismiss ‘thank you’ emails as ‘unnecessary’? In practise, they add to information overload and prompt no action other than selection of the ‘delete’ button. They do, however, reinforce relationships, which, arguably, is a useful benefit. It is, after all, why people send them. We humans evolved over aeons, and have developed an inherent tendency to socialise, co-operate, and be agreeable (at least to those with whom we come into direct contact: wars notwithstanding!). These traits almost certainly contributed to the development of our current level of civilization.
Before deciding that we should abandon ‘thank you’ missives, perhaps we should turn our attention to the other messages that fill our inboxes. For instance: I have an account with freecycle.org, and I was being sent several ‘digest’ emails each day. But since I rarely actually read them, I’ve just now logged in to my account and have disabled those messages, for the time being at least. Freecycle boasts more than nine million members around the world. I wonder how many emails they send each day?
A particularly nefarious participant in this is the ‘Facebook family’ of web applications. I deleted my Instagram account not long ago, and my faecesbook account just recently. Among the reasons for doing so was that I was fed up with being bombarded by emails from them; messages that bear almost no information content, and whose sole objective is to get the recipient to log in to their website. The settings on faecesbook in particular for when these messages are sent are, quite simply, absurd; every option is enabled by default. You have to act to change them.
As my inbox was getting swamped by these blessed things — I was getting a good dozen messages a day — I had redirected this garbage to my ‘Junk’ folder. When I next looked in there it was chock-a-block with the crap. When I noticed that, I logged in to my account to see what I could do to stem the flood… and it was after about an hour of click-click-clicking on the multitude of options-for-this-and-options-for-that that I finally thought “to hell with this, life’s too short” — and cancelled my account.
And that’s just Instagram and Facebook. How many hundreds of thousands of spammers are there out there who carpet-bomb us all with email shite?
Facebook alone boasts ~two billion active daily users. If a dozen emails are sent to each of those users every single day, that’s 24,000,000,000 unnecessary emails. Every. Single. Day. That’s 375 times the number of ‘thank you’ missives OVO Energy highlights. I’d like to commission Censuswide to see what impact the spam emails from organisations like Facebook have on carbon emissions; I strongly suspect that the answer that would come back could be summarised as, “a hell of a lot more than from occasional ‘thank you’ emails!”
From now on I’ll be turning a critical eye on the other emails I get from all the other sites I’m registered on, with a view to weaning out those that I can do without. So I think I’ll thank OVO Energy for drawing attention to this.
Carbon emissions from emails are certainly a concern, and it’s crucial that we change our behaviour. But perhaps the solution, rather than abandoning a long-standing and useful social tradition by suggesting we ‘think before we thank’, is to apply a disincentive. How about if everyone were to be charged a penny for every email sent? (And tuppence each for corporations.) That might go some way to address the problem. I feel pretty sure it would reduce the garbage that arrives in my inbox every day.
Makes you think, no?
§ The OVO Energy Forum Community Manager (nice chap, very helpful, you’d like him) asked me to extend an invitation to you to visit their forum if you should have any questions about their research.
Coincidentally, this very morning I received two (identical) emails from The Co-operative Bank. My response to that is below. I thought it worth adding this note as it underscores the point I make in this post.
Hi! I hope you are well.
You sent me two emails this morning, at 01:38 and 01:40. They appear to be identical. Ironically, the emails contain the statement: “Working together to protect the environment.” With that in mind, could I ask you to investigate why your system is apparently sending multiple copies of emails, an activity that has an impact on carbon emissions, and thus the environment?
P.S. I had to resend this message (ironically, generating still MORE carbon emissions) because your original said it was ‘from’ <firstname.lastname@example.org> — with no warning not to attempt to reply to it — and I made the mistake of assuming that my reply would go to that same address; yet it would seem that your email was configured to use a ‘reply-to’ address <email@example.com>, and I didn’t spot that before hitting ‘send’. Perhaps you should rethink this, as I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only frustrated customer affected by this.
Thank you again.