Nov 20 2020

E-Mails and Energy Efficiency

It is a useful exercise to think about the way millions or even billions of people behave to look for low-hanging fruit in terms of increased energy efficiency or environmental sustainability. While this should be a purely evidence-based and cost vs benefit exercise, it has unfortunately been sucked into the ever-growing culture war (at least in the US). Plastic straws are a great example of this. We use them mostly by habit and culture. They are often given, for example, by default in restaurants. As a result an estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the beaches of the world. Most people don’t need or even want straws, so it is a simple change to make them on-demand, rather than automatic. Further, paper straw technology is sufficient to replace them with a more biodegradable option. We can argue about the best way to achieve the goal of limiting plastic straw waste, and whether outright bans are necessary, but the plastic straw has now become an icon on the right about overreach on the left. Ugh.

It’s possible that e-mail may follow the path of plastic straws into a senseless culture war. According to the BBC, the Financial Times reports that the UK government is considering recommending that everyone try to send fewer e-mails. Why? Climate change.

“It claimed that if every British person sent one fewer thank you email a day, it would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to tens of thousands of flights to Europe.”

That sounds like a lot of carbon, but of course it is tiny compared to total carbon output – about 0.0037% of the output of the UK economy. This illustrates a few principles worth pointing out. First, when hundreds of millions or billions of people engage even in a small behavior, the cumulative effect adds up. So shaving tiny costs (in resources, in pollution, etc.) can have a measurable effect. But obviously the effect is going to be proportional to the action. I probably look at a couple hundred e-mails per day. Not sending one “thank you” e-mail seems like a drop in the bucket – because it is. The result is that the absolute magnitude is large, because there are hundreds of  millions of buckets, but the relative magnitude is small.

The other question, therefore, is this – is the personal responsibility approach even valid? This is a complex question, but I think the short answer is, yes and no. Because our individual small actions add up, we need to have some basic awareness of how we move through this world. I think the most obvious example is littering. If everyone litters just a little, the environment will be massively littered. If there is a culture of responsibility around not littering, the difference will be significant.

But getting a lot of people to do even little things is hard. Public behavior is notoriously difficult to affect as desired simply by telling people what they should or should not do. It’s even harder when the message is portrayed as partisan. Just look at mask-wearing during a deadly pandemic. Also, should we be burdening the public with a thousand small responsibilities?  It’s a lot to keep track of. How much of our time, attention, and effort should we spend shaving off every tiny inefficiency? Will out days become filled with PSAs telling us about everything from how to eat to e-mail etiquette? It’s easy to see how this becomes oppressive. Perhaps we need to look at this as a limited resource itself – we can only have so many campaigns to affect public behavior at any one time.

Further, industry has a history of promoting campaigns of personal responsibility, but with the purpose of absolving themselves of corporate responsibility. Most famously the bottling industry was behind the “Keep America Beautiful” PSAs to deflect responsibility for litter onto the public.

There is also another approach – do not rely on individual people making individual choices. Rather, set the system up so the more efficient choice happens by default. You don’t get a straw unless you ask for it. This is where regulation comes in, just like speed limits and seatbelt laws. Regulations, however, probably should also be viewed as a limited resource, otherwise the “regulation environment” can become oppressive and itself inefficient.

This is why I said it’s complicated – there is no one magic solution. Each problem needs to have a customized solution that balances all of these concerns, with an eye toward risk vs benefit and the total regulatory/responsibility burden. We need a blend of personal responsibility, corporate responsibility, regulations, and improved technology. As a general rule, the more efficient, environmentally safe, or healthy option should happen by default. Costs should not be externalized but born by the entity that is responsible or gets the benefit. Incentives should be constructed so that the optimal behavior is favored and clear perverse incentives are avoided. Every sacrifice we ask an entity to make (individual, corporate, state) needs to be justified by a benefit of adequate magnitude, and balanced against the legitimate concerns of liberty. Also, I personally would limit the use of shame as a behavioral modification strategy. I think this backfires, and is at least partly responsible for the culture war (to be clear, not entirely or even mostly, but it does play a role).

Getting back to e-mails – simply letting people know that e-mails are not free, they cost energy, may be helpful. Changing the culture so that sending a pointless “thanks” e-mail will no longer be the norm may also help. But I also would not bank on this strategy, or waste too much effort pushing this message. In relative magnitude it is of limited value and simply may not be worth it. Rather – how about considering some legislation to limit the literally hundreds of spam e-mails I get every day? I have to invest time filtering my e-mail to keep those hundreds from becoming thousands. I have to spend time unsubscribing from lists I never subscribed to, but they keep popping back up. Finding some fair and common sense rules to limit people getting e-mails they don’t want would have a much greater effect than PSAs against “thank you” e-mails. It will also have other obvious benefits. Default social media settings could also drastically reduce some sources of needless e-mails.

Technology will also continue to advance. For example, researchers have discovered a magnetic switch that uses less energy. If this scales to industrial use, that could be a significant energy efficiency gain in computing. But history has shown that such advances in efficiency are met by increased utilization to offset the efficiency gains. The more efficient lighting becomes, for example, the more lighting we use. You know you will fill that hard drive, no matter how big it gets. So while we need these gains, they will not solve the efficiency problem. Systematic changes are necessary, but they have to be carefully designed, and not just put on the back of individuals by default.

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