About three years ago, I found out that the internet has a carbon footprint. While browsing, I clicked on an article about Bitcoin and discovered that mining cryptocurrencies uses unfathomable amounts of energy. In fact, it uses so much processing power that the best option for many cryptocurrencies is to house their servers in Icelandic server farms, thanks to the country’s reliable supply of cheap geothermal energy.
Intrigued, I decided to read up on how much energy the internet itself uses – and what impact this was having on the planet.
The answer really shocked me. While I obviously understood that using computers and the internet uses energy, I had never really thought about it. At least in an environmental context.
After all, the internet – and anything digital – feels light and airy. For example: Your little ebook now replaces an entire library! I don’t need an alarm clock, a watch, or a calculator – I just use my smartphone! I never buy the newspaper, I just use my iPad!
Behind this rhetoric of digital solutions making our lives lighter, there is a very big problem. The internet, and our usage of it, is not so light at all.
The internet as a whole currently accounts for 2% of global emissions. That’s the same as all global aviation.
As you may expect, this figure is increasing rapidly. The more data we consume, the more energy we use, and data consumption shows no signs of slowing as people worldwide grasp for better and faster internet speeds. By 2025, Cisco predict that the internet will account for 3.5% of global carbon emissions.
But the internet is not slowing down. As it matures and plays more of an integral part in our lives, we expect more from the internet. As each year passes, people are developing more complex, visually elaborate websites. These websites may look and work well – but behind the scenes they are bloated, using huge amounts of energy each time they are loaded. To put this in perspective: loading the average website uses up the equivalent amount of energy as boiling a kettle for a cup of tea.
When I tell people about this, their first reaction is almost always shock. I understand why. Environmental guilt has started to creep into everyday life for most people I know. There is always a sense that you should be doing better.
The look on their face says it all – not another thing.
Like most environmental problems, this issue can seem too existential and overwhelming at first. Luckily, there are many things you can do in your personal and professional life to reduce your internet carbon footprint.
How can you measure a website’s carbon footprint?
Wholegrain Digital have developed Web Carbon, a carbon calculator for websites. It isn’t an exact science, but using two key pieces of data a pretty good estimate can be made:
- Data transfer over the wire – When a website is loaded, the energy used is roughly proportional to the amount of data transferred. This is adjusted depending on whether website assets have been cached by repeated visits to the site.
- Energy source used by the data centre – The data centre accounts for roughly 48% of energy used by website; although the data isn’t 100% perfect, Web Carbon checks the Green Web Foundation (GWF) database to see if the data centre is using green energy (The GWF is a non-profit developing tools for the transition to a green Internet; You can enter a domain name in the search box on their homepage to see if a site is hosted green!).
Combining this information gives a good idea of the emissions created by an average user visiting a given website; multiplying carbon per page view by the typical number of page views gives an estimation of the total annual CO2 emissions of the site.
One of the most efficient websites tested by Web Carbon has been Elon Musk’s Musk Foundation site; in less space than a tweet, it gets across all of the necessary information. The following screenshot is literally the entire site:
How can I reduce my online carbon footprint as a business?
Most sites won’t be able to match the Musk Foundation on minimalism. However, there are a number of changes you can make to your website to reduce its environmental impact.
Some require more effort than others, but you’ll be happy to know there are a few simple changes you can make today that will have a huge difference:
Switching to a green hosting company
This is one of the most significant changes you can make as a business to reduce your internet carbon footprint. 5 great sustainable web hosting companies are:
Kinsta is a managed WordPress hosting provider used by companies like Asos and Ubisoft. It runs using the *Google Cloud Platform, which runs on data centres which use 50% less energy than average.
*Despite its poor record on user privacy for example, Google is actually an industry leader when it comes to sustainability. Because of their renewable energy and carbon offset programmes, their net operational carbon emissions in 2016 were 0.
Specialist WordPress service Timpani are strong on privacy, based out of a secure data centre in Cambridgeshire that runs on 100% renewable energy.
Online since 1999, Bounceweb offers web hosting powered by wind energy. They boast a “completely carbon neutral hosting facility, and 43% less electricity usage servers.”
Raidboxes is a German WordPress company running on 100% renewable energy from hydropower, and for every website hosted they pledge to plant a tree on the owner’s behalf.
They fund the Eden Reforestation Projects, who plant over 3 million trees per month in countries like Haiti and Indonesia.
Greenhost take sustainability so seriously that aside from being run on 100% renewable energy from local windmills, they’ve gone as far as to build their office out of wood, and furnished it with second-hand furniture. They’ve also sponsored ethical ventures and sustainability projects like an “informational site about zero-waste shops in Europe”
If you’re not sure about how green your hosting is, talk to the company about where their servers are located and whether they run off renewable energy.
Improve your SEO
The other main way to reduce your business’s internet carbon footprint is by improving your SEO (search engine optimisation); irrelevant traffic coming to your site – with visitors loading it only to bounce off again – uses a lot of energy. The more relevant your traffic is, the less wasted page views you have.
Good SEO can be difficult to achieve (there’s a reason why SEO specialists are paid a lot of money), but a couple of good (if obvious) pointers are:
- Make sure any content on your site is genuinely relevant and useful to your audience; not just clickbait to lure them in!
- Make content readable; no one likes to be confronted with huge walls of text. Break content up with headings, images and bullet pointed sections.
- Ensure the page load speed is fast: visitors won’t stick around if they have to wait for pages to load
- Easy site navigation; likewise, if visitors can’t find what they need on your site quickly, they’ll probably go elsewhere.
Further reading: How to Learn SEO in 2019
8 other ways to reduce your website’s carbon footprint
- Images can be compressed without much loss in quality, and the average user probably won’t notice either way! It might not be the best idea if you’re showing off products for sale, but a typical blog post doesn’t need to be packed with high-definition photos to get your point across. Here’s a guide to compressing images.
- Using the most efficient file format for graphics (such as SVG or WebP) will lessen the power needed to load the site. Using vector graphics and CSS effects can offer a similar experience with much smaller files than traditional images such as JPEGs and GIFs. If you’re not sure which to use, TechStacker have a great guide taking you through the different image file types.
- In general, using fewer, smaller images will allow your website to load faster, and it’ll reduce the power needed to host the page and load the site. If you think back to dial-up, it’s easy to see how images account for a significant chunk of load time. Images can also be uploaded at scale instead of relying on CSS to resize them. However, it’s worth noting that WordPress supports responsive images, so it depends on your web host.
- Minimising the use of tracking and advertising scripts will reduce your online carbon footprint; trackers and ads can cause websites to take twice as long to load.
- Autoplaying videos are generally annoying, and most are turned off within a few seconds. Avoiding them is helpful; the same is true for unnecessary plugins that add bloat to the page.
- Implementing a caching solution is also important, as caching reduces the amount of server bandwidth required to generate a pageview (by storing static resources external host).
- Writing cleaner, more efficient code will help to optimise your website; this article looks at how to do it.
- Lastly, using lightweight fonts such as system fonts, and fewer font variations will also have the desired effect. We’ll add a link to in-depth look at web font optimisation via Google developers. You can also use modern web fonts, which offer higher compression methods.
The best thing about all of this is that making these changes won’t just benefit the planet – they’ll actually be good for your business by improving user experience and boosting you up the search algorithms.
6 way you can reduce your internet carbon footprint as an individual
Almost everyone I know is now trying to make their lifestyles more eco-friendly. While reusable coffee cups and metal straws have successfully latched onto the public consciousness, the environmental impacts of internet usage are rarely mentioned.
Here are some ways you can make your use of the Internet greener:
1.If you have a personal website or blog, follow the advice above to make it run more efficiently. This doesn’t mean cutting down on content, but it does make sense to do things like using smaller images fewer trackers.
2. It’s also always worth making the switch to renewable energy at home if possible! In the UK, reputable green energy providers include:
3. Netflix and YouTube combined account for more than 50% of Internet traffic at peak times in North America; reducing the amount of time you spend streaming (and gaming) will reduce your online carbon footprint significantly. 70% of time spent on YouTube is spent as a result of YouTube’s recommendation algorithms – when watching a video, bear this in mind, and try not to get sucked down a recommendations black hole.
4.Set limits on the amount of time you can spend online: iOS users can make use of the Screen Time function, as well as setting App Limits as of iOS 12. You’ll be able to see usage data, and it’s easier to call it a day if you set a hard limit. Android has similar features found in the Digital Wellbeing Dashboard. You can also set your home WiFi to switch off a couple of hours before you go to sleep each night.
5. Change your emailing habits: resist the urge to reply all, and unsubscribe from newsletters you’re no longer interested in.
6. For searches and other quick tasks, use a tablet or smartphone instead of a desktop or laptop – they use much less energy than larger devices.
And the most important tip of all – spread the word! The more awareness we can generate about the internet carbon footprint, the more positive change we can create.
Not only will these tips help you and your business to save a huge amount of energy, but they’ll also benefit your mental health, and might make you think twice about reaching for your phone at the dinner table. Who would say no to that?
Featured image by Shutterstock