How The Web Can Save The World

Green mountain photo

As warnings about climate change grow ever more dire, the footprint of our digital lives is attracting more curious eyes. The closer we look, the more sobering the picture becomes.

The fact is the Internet is the world’s largest coal-powered machine, with a C02 footprint rivaling that of global air travel. It's on track to be responsible for more carbon emissions than any country except China, India and the United States by 2025, a mere 6 years away. By 2030, the Internet will consume fully 20% of the world’s electricity by 2030, predicts Anders Andrae of Huawei Technologies.

Luckily, there are concrete steps we can take today to reduce the web’s enormous carbon footprint. It's a serious challenge to our industry and one which we have a responsibility to solve. This is the first in a series I'll be writing about creating a greener web.

How the Internet Uses Energy

We can think of the Internet as a cycle of content storage, delivery and consumption, with a server at one endpoint and a user at the other. We consume energy at both endpoints, and at points along the way.

On the storage endpoint are data centers. All of the content we enjoy on the web lives on computers housed in data centers — small rooms to large warehouses with anywhere from a handful to thousands of computers.

The number of data centers has actually decreased over the last few years as companies have increasingly outsourced their hosting to cloud computing companies. So while there may be fewer data centers, those used for cloud computing have grown larger. Massive even.

Given that cloud computing uses more computers, and therefore more energy, the net effect has been that our carbon footprint is only growing.

The gargantuan Amazon Web Services, for example, is estimated to have consumed 7.2 million megawatt-hours of electricity back in 2015. This translates to emissions of 3.3 million tons of carbon dioxide. By comparison, entire city of Seattle used 7.7 million megawatt-hours.

At the consumption end, there is the energy costs of all our streaming, sharing, searching, downloading, uploading and browsing. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy determined that we consume 5.12 kWh of energy for every GB of data.

By one estimate in 2016, the average American uses about 200 kWh per year online, making each of us responsible for about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This doesn’t begin to count the energy consumed by all of our devices.

How We Can Help Save The World

The path to a greener web is clear, but requires an industry-wide effort. This includes web hosts, developers, designers and everyone who owns a website.

Hosting providers, particularly the big players, can have the greatest impact by using 100% renewable energy. Microsoft is expected to reach 60% renewable energy for its data centers this year, and 70% by 2023.

Amazon has made a commitment to ultimately using 100% renewable energy, but not without controversy. The company reported reaching 50% in 2018, but issued no further updates, leading Greenpeace to accuse Amazon of abandoning its commitment.

While renewable energy can minimize the impact from data storage, how we design, code and manage our sites can reduce the carbon footprint of content delivery and consumption. Best practices in user experience design, and site optimization for speed and SEO provide the tools for this critical task. Sites should be well-designed and responsive, easy to find and navigate, and minimize the amount of data loaded per page. We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these in future posts.

Resources

Every website owner can help make the web more sustainable. A good starting point may be Ecograder from Mightybytes. This free tool assesses your site based on page speed, findability, design and user experience, and green hosting, with information and links to improve your score.

You can also transfer your site to a green hosting company. This list of green hosts might help your search.

Greenpeace rates popular apps by their dependence on fossil. For a quick peek at your favorites, visit Clickclean.