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Carbon footprint of spam – Viagra anyone?

February 8, 2010

Do you ever open your email program only to find a series of spam messages surrounding your one legitimate email message?  You proceed to scan the spam just to check if there is a message you might be deleting mistakenly.  You delete all spam and find more spam in your inbox the next time you log in!  Did you ever think that spam might have a carbon footprint?

According to a study commissioned by McAfee and conducted by a climate change consultant, ICF International, the average greenhouse gas (GHG) emission associated with a single spam message is 0.3 grams of CO2. This produces the same amount of emissions as driving a car three feet. Are you sitting down for this next bit (no pun intended)?  .03 grams multiplied by the annual volume of spam is like driving around the Earth 1.6 million times!

The GHG emissions generated by spam are through the use of computer hardware for sending, processing, storing, viewing and filtering out spam. Spammers get email addresses by downloading entire websites and searching their content for email addresses.  Spam campaign is then created by writing code to send spam using zombie computers or botnets, and conventional mail servers.

The spam, just like legitimate email, travels over the Internet (2% energy spent) and reaches the receiver’s network where mail servers process it (1% energy spent), filter the spam (16% energy spent) and store the remainder on a hard disk.  A secondary spam filter may go through the remaining email to attempt to filter out spam.  You the recipients use the most energy to filter out the remaining spam that has sneaked in known as ‘false negatives’ (52% energy spent by you).  Or you sometimes also have to look through your spam folder to find a legitimate email caught in the spam filters called ‘false positives’ (27% energy spent by you).  The energy required for all adds to 33 billion kWh, which is approximately equal to power provided by 4 large new coal power plants.  ICF estimates spam-related emissions equal to emissions from approximately 1.5 million homes in the United States.  Globally this number reaches an equivalence of 2.4 million homes.

Some astounding facts from the ICF study:

  • Globally an estimated 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008 which has a spam footprint equal to 3 million passenger vehicles on the road annually.
  • Using spam filtering is like taking 13 million cars off the road.
  • Average business email user generates 131 kg of CO2 emissions and 22 percent of that is spam related.
  • Approximately 104 billion user hours are spent per year reading and manually deleting spam.

I will have a follow up email in the near future on how to protect your inbox from spam and safe emailing tips.

Here is the grain of salt that needs to be added to the study Note that McAfee makes antivirus and anti-spam software so having this study conducted was in their interest.  But I’m glad they hired an independent firm, which gives me a little bit more confidence in the results, although some people are skeptical about their method of calculating the carbon footprint.

All the facts and figures presented here are from the ICF study.  To find out more about this study click here.

-by Noerah

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2010 5:50 am

    This is crazy! A classic case of how millions of tiny things mount to become huge… Just like that Onion article you linked to a while back, only not so humerous!

    • February 10, 2010 5:53 am

      Humorous, not “humerous”… See, I wasted energy just to correct that! Sorry….

  2. February 21, 2010 2:13 pm

    This is scary. I wonder how much CO2 is being generated by text messages saying things like, “OMG, I’m at Starbucks, where are you?”

    • February 21, 2010 9:12 pm

      I know! Every time I send an attachment instead of emailing a link to the file, I feel like I’m wasting resources.

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