62 trillion spam e-mails = power used by 1.5 million homes

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Chicago (IL) – There is no day without some news about how many emissions are caused by a certain circumstance in our lives. So, it was just a matter of time when we would get some indication of how virtual spam is polluting our real environment. The numbers are convincing and yes, it is bad. But how much truth and real life usage is in those numbers?   

Get ready to feel guilty. According to a study conducted by ICF International and commissioned by McAfee, the average business email user generates 131 kg of CO2 every year simply by dealing with email. 22% is related to spam, which translates to the extra use of 3.3 gallons of gasoline every year, ICF found. ICF came up with that number by looking at the average power consumption of a computer and comparing it to the time it would take users to create, send, receive, store, view and delete emails.

The spam carbon footprint, which is caused by harvesting addresses, creating spam campaigns, sending spam from zombies and mail servers, transmitting spam from sender to receiver, processing of spam by incoming mail servers, storing messages, viewing and deleting spam as well as, filtering spam and searching for false positives requires 33 billion kWh every year, according to ICF – which is about the power that is provided by a 4 GW power plant. The emissions add up to 17 million metric tons of CO2, about 0.2% of the globe’s CO2 output – or about the same that is created by 1.5 million U.S. homes. Or the emissions of 3.1 million passenger vehicles running on 2 billion gallons of gasoline.  All numbers are based on an estimate of 62 trillion spam e-mails sent in 2008.  

ICF believes that 52% of spam energy is used to view spam, 27% by finding false positives and 16% through spam filtering. Added up, the study concludes that more than 80% of power related to spam happens on the client side for business users and 95% for most home users. And yes, you guessed right, a lot of power could be saved by filtering spam or using security software. ICF claims that viewing and deleting a piece of spam takes 3 seconds.

From the study: “Spam filtering also makes up a significant portion of PC energy use — approximately 5.5 billion KWh annually or about 16% of overall spam energy use. But compared to the energy users consume searching for false positives and viewing and deleting spam messages, the energy expenditure of spam filtering seems like a small price to pay. Spam filtering helps to reduce the overall number of spam messages, thus decreasing the time spent manually sorting through the messages and associated energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.” The conclusion: Keep your spam filters up to date and help keep our environment clean.

But is this conclusion accurate? I wonder whether if the true impact of spam was calculated as it assumes additional up time for a computer – which would be true in my case, since I shut down my PC at night. I I assume that those 100 or so spam messages every day (I never count, sorry) add five minutes of energy use to my PC every day, then yes, spam is bad for the environment. But how many PCs in this country remain on all the time anyway? And what about all those email accounts we use as secondary accounts and we don’t bother to delete any spam at all? I would not go as far as Jeremy Kaplan and dismiss the study entirely, but as most other statistics, I’ll take this one with a grain of salt as well and don’t feel quite as guilty.

Chime in and let us know what you think.