The French main effort to minimize the impact of digital technology proves to be ineffective

When it comes to the impact of digital technology, the French overwhelmingly believe in an absurdity. Deleting emails has no real impact on the digital environmental footprint. There are better things to do.

Can bad advice, if repeated, become relevant in the long run? Probably not. On the other hand, it may eventually become permanently ingrained in the minds of people who are constantly exposed to the erroneous message, and become a widely held belief. This is exactly what happened with email cleaning.


According to the 2024 edition of the digital barometerunveiled on May 14, the French judge that “ sort and clean your mailbox regularly » is one of the main levers for reducing the environmental footprint of digital technology. This action is the one that is most widely shared, by 42% of respondents.

Source: Crédoc
We are on the wrong track. // Source: Crédoc

This feeling notably goes beyond unplugging devices at night (39% of those questioned consider this lever effective), which comes in 2nd position. It also outperforms another common action, consisting of extending the life of equipment (38%) — by repairing it, preserving it and, therefore, avoiding renewing it too early.

These findings come from an annual study carried out in 2023 by the Research Center for the Study and Observation of Living Conditions (Crédoc). Since then, they have been the subject of various comments, such as Pierre Beyssac, the founder of the Gandi registry office, and Pirate Party candidate for the 2024 European elections.

Fifteen years of bombardment of 'clean your mailbox' as an 'eco-gesture' by the media and Cyber ​​Clean Up Day initiatives which prefer the 'symbolic' to effectiveness and this is the result: the most useless gesture is perceived as the most useful to the general public “, he lamented May 15 on X (formerly Twitter).


Deleting emails, a “good reflex” for the climate?

The responsibility of the public authorities is also great in this matter. Barbara Pompili, when she was Minister of Ecological Transition from 2020 to 2022, for example invited the public to “ empty » their mailbox, which “ will already be not bad » to act on the digital footprint. This, in the middle of the Citizens’ Climate Convention.

Agnès Pannier-Runacher, who succeeded him until 2024, also pushed in that direction. Explaining wanting “ associate the French » to do ” these actions to save the planet “, she indicated in 2022 that it was better to refrain from sending a funny email with an attachment, implying that this ” small gesture » would be a “ good reflex. »

The ex-minister nevertheless prided himself on being “ on the side of the ecology of solutions and not on the side of the ecology of illusions. » However, this action, perceived by a large part of the population as effective, is not. To put it more directly, deleting your emails from your inbox is the digital equivalent of peeing in the shower.

Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher, on the eco bonus // Source: TF1 video extractMinister Agnes Pannier-Runacher, on the eco bonus // Source: TF1 video extract
Agnès Pannier-Runacher, then minister. // Source : TF1 video extract

Specialists say this regularly.

Quoted by the HuffPost in 2020, Françoise Berthoud, research engineer at the CNRS, specialist in these questions of digital carbon footprint, warned that this is a counterproductive action: spending time on your box and chaining deletions requires computer processing and , therefore, energy consumption.

Same story in an article for The Conversation signed by Luciano Rodrigues Viana, doctoral student in environmental sciences, Jean-François Boucher, professor at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi and Mohamed Cheriet, professor, and member of the interdisciplinary research center on the operationalization of sustainable development.

In their article titled “Sending fewer emails: a symbolic, but ineffective, gesture for the climate”, they also explain that “ Manually deleting emails can have more of an impact than simply storing them, since it represents time spent in front of the computer. » Clearly, we are on the wrong track with this advice.

The media Good buddy, very active on issues and solutions linked to the environment, also questioned itself in 2022. If it does not completely exclude the deletion of emails from the relevant levers, the site above all invites the public to keep their computer equipment . “ You definitely have better things to do », says Bon Pote.

There are other avenues to follow

If you want to reduce the environmental footprint of your digital use, these are other paths you need to take. We must also keep in mind the orders of magnitude: information and communication technologies represent between 2 and 4% of global emissions annual greenhouse gas emissions of human origin.

This does not mean that nothing should be done and that digital technology should not make a contribution. But there is more effective. This is what Crédoc slips into its pages. This is the case of ” increasing the lifespan of digital devices » which thus avoids renewing them too often and maintaining pressure on the resources used to manufacture them.

Conversely, and in diplomatic language, Crédoc points out that sorting emails and unplugging charging equipment at night has a “ lesser range. » This is obviously terrible, because these two strategies are in the top three of the main measures considered useful. Unfortunately, we remain in the ecology of illusions.

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Source: Editing by Nino Barbey for NumeramaSource: Editing by Nino Barbey for Numerama