How sustainable is the Internet?

“Please think about the environment before printing this email.” It’s a request many of us are probably familiar with. It seems reasonable, but it also implies that an email, and by association the web, is a green medium. Sadly, this isn’t exactly true. What if I told you that the Internet is the largest coal-fired machine in the world?

The energy consumption of the Internet is enormous, and it’s growing rapidly. If the Internet were a country, it would be the sixth largest in the world based on the energy it uses, ahead of Germany and a little shy of Russia. It is responsible for approximately a billion tons of CO₂ emissions per year, with coal representing the largest share of the energy mix for many of the world’s data centres. This puts the carbon footprint of the Internet at approximately the same level as global air travel.

By 2025, it’s estimated that global communication technologies will be responsible for more carbon emissions than any other country except China, India and the USA.

Amidst all this, just 13-15% of the Internet is powered by renewable energy. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Since 2010, Greenpeace have been calling on major internet companies to power their data centres on renewables. They give this initiative the title, Click Clean. Of course, Greenpeace aren’t solely responsible, but since they started producing their reports, the real giants of the Internet – Facebook, Google and Amazon among them – have made and met serious commitments to improving their sustainability.

As much as the big companies are making firm commitments to renewables, there is of course a very long tail of hosting companies and resellers who aren’t currently making any commitment to improving their energy mix. Fortunately there are a number of initiatives that are trying to tackle this. The Green Web Foundation provides a neat tool to check whether or not a site is hosted by a “green” host and they maintain a directory of such hosts. I put “green” in quotes because not every hosting company listed by the GWF is necessarily 100% powered by renewable energy. To qualify as green, the company has to prove to a reasonable degree that they are carbon neutral, and so some hosts use carbon offsets to achieve green certification. Of course, this is still better than nothing, but worth bearing in mind.

But beyond the relatively simple concerns around whether or not data centres are being powered by renewable energy, there’s a lot more that can be done to save energy. The group who have the largest potential to make a change here is web designers and developers. Dieter Rams’ ninth principle for good design is that:

“Good design is environmentally friendly

“Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.”

Source: Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles for Good Design

My experience here is that graphic designers and web developers have generally regarded this rule as something that doesn’t really apply to the digital space. In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Those working on the web have direct and absolute control over the computing power required to consume the product that they are making. Every carousel, every slideshow, every HTTP request is an addition that carries an exponential impact both on the devices that will ultimately consume the website or app, and on the servers that respond to requests.

Fortunately, there is a nascent community of designers and developers who are embracing this reality. The SustainableUX free, online conference has been running annually since 2016. Also in 2016, O’Reilly published Designing for Sustainability by Tim Frick. Tim Frick’s company Mightybytes have produced the Ecograder tool, which is effectively a version of Google PageSpeed Insights that measures the environmental impact of a website rather than simply how well it performs.

Tim Frick’s ‘Designing for Sustainability’, published by O’Reilly

Last month was Earth Month, and unfortunately I’m a little tardy on writing this blog post. But as a small contribution to the fantastic efforts being made by others in this area, I’ve put together The Green Web Widget for WordPress websites. It’s a very simple little widget that displays The Green Web Foundation’s badge showing your website as either green or grey depending on how it’s hosted. I have it on the sidebar of my blog.

If you’re interested in finding out more about this, I recommend checking out:


Featured photograph: “Gelsenkirchen, GER 2010” by Guy Gorek is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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