The alarming environmental impact of the Internet and how you can help

We Don’t Have Time
Apr 8, 2019 · 10 min read

Guest Blog Post: It’s easy to think of the Internet as a purely virtual world. The Cloud sounds fluffy, light, dreamy and innocent; data appears to syncs instantly and magically across our devices; we connect wirelessly with anyone, anywhere in the world, using nothing more than our phone and a WiFi signal.

The reality is very different: the global information & communication technology (ICT) ecosystem actually has a huge environmental impact. So large in fact, that its carbon footprint is on a par with the entire aviation industry’s emissions from fuel.

Very few people realise this problem even exists. It’s vital that we tackle it together, but first we have to start with education and awareness.

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How we think of The Cloud according to Ben Clifford
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How The Cloud actually works according to Ben Clifford

We all know of the typical contributors to our own individual carbon footprint — for example air travel, the food we choose to eat, the type of car we drive (and how much it’s used instead of public transport), and the energy provider we choose for our home.

But we never stop to think that we view, save and exchange an endless stream of data every day — photos, videos, emails, music, messages, documents, presentations and countless other formats.

This daily lifestyle is powered by a vast network of tangible, physical infrastructure — from data centres to transmission networks to the devices we hold in our hands, place in our laps and have on our desks. The transfer and mass storage of our data is enormous, and growing at a rapid speed.

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Malmodin, J.; Lundén, D. The Energy and Carbon Footprint of the Global ICT and E&M Sectors 2010–2015. Sustainability 2018, 10, 3027.

Data centres in particular consume a gigantic amount of electricity — 80% of which currently comes from fossil fuel power stations. The good news is that there are easy ways we can individually help solve this problem of “digital pollution”. Surprisingly, big business is already leading the charge in fighting the problem — but there’s still a long way to go.

This article discusses the opportunities to reduce our digital carbon footprints and how to measure the carbon emissions of specific websites, so you can use We Don’t Have Time’s social network to send climate “love”, “ideas” and “warnings” to those that are already doing well, and those that need to catch up and improve.

Understanding your digital carbon footprint

The more data that is sent and stored, the more electricity and energy is needed. Even though this is relatively small at the individual level, when this is multiplied by the billions of people globally that are now connected to the Internet, it really mounts up fast!

The key is to be mindful and aware of the amount of data we use.
Here are some simple opportunities to reduce your own footprint:

  1. Delete emails that you won’t need again, to prevent them being stored unnecessarily
  2. Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists that you never read
  3. Delete apps on your phone that you don’t use
  4. Delete redundant screenshots and photos from iCloud or other cloud drives
  5. Use your phone for quick Google searches instead of a laptop — it uses less energy

Website carbon emissions

A staggering statistic is that a typical website produces 6.8 grams of carbon emissions every time a page loads… That’s roughly the same as the emissions produced when you boil an electric kettle for a cup of tea!

Again, there are some simple steps that can be taken to reduce a website’s emissions, yet very few people are aware of this problem and its solutions. We’re working hard to spread awareness and we’d love your help to spread the message too!

There are 3 key questions to ask when assessing the emissions a website produces:

  1. Is the website hosted in a data centre that uses fossil fuel electricity, or renewables?
  2. How much data gets transferred when the web page opens?
  3. How many times are the website’s pages viewed by its visitors over time?

It’s clear that switching to renewables is vital, but the impact of a website’s page size is more subtle and less widely known or understood — this is something we’re working hard to address.

To help explain the above relationship between the variables a little further: a website page which has very high carbon emissions each time it’s viewed, but very few visitors, is less of a problem than a website with only moderately high carbon emissions per page but a huge number of visitors.

So it’s particularly important that big businesses, with their huge numbers of website visitors, pay attention to their website emissions. Every single time a visitor opens a page, it’s like another kettle being boiled!

You can use a free tool called SimilarWeb to take a look at the number of visitors a website gets. We find it quickest and easiest to use their free Chrome extension as shown below.

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Airbnb visitor data in the SimilarWeb extension for the Chrome browser

What is green web hosting?

Think of web hosting as the rented home that a website lives in. It’s how it gets online for the world to enjoy. The website’s files and databases get saved on a computer called a server, which is usually stored with thousands of others servers within a high-tech building called a data centre. Every time someone wants to open a website on their device, they make a connection to this server over the Internet, and the server sends back a response containing data which displays the website on the user’s device.

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Server racks in a typical data centre

If you have a website of your own, you’ve probably chosen a hosting provider such as GoDaddy, Namecheap, HostGator or SiteGround.

You most likely selected your hosting provider based on price, amount of storage space, online reviews or recommendations from friends.

If you used Squarespace or Wix as the tool to create your website, you wouldn’t even have needed to look for a hosting provider separately, as they include hosting as part of their subscription and they don’t offer or allow you to choose something else.

BUT the vast majority of these providers use data centres which are powered by dirty fossil fuel electricity. Very few of the big names in hosting make any reference to their data centre’s source of electricity, so it’s easy for this issue to completely pass you by when choosing a hosting provider.

How to check if a website is hosted in a green data centre

The Green Web Foundation maintains a directory of all the world’s servers, data centres and hosting providers which are known to use 100% renewable energy. They have a free tool on their website which allows you to test any website URL and discover whether it’s powered by 100% renewables (“green”) or not (“grey”).

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The Green Web Foundation’s free website checker
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Facebook uses 100% renewable energy…
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… Whereas Microsoft doesn’t

But we can go a step further than the basic renewable energy / fossil fuel check.

Using this innovative, free Website Carbon tool, we can measure the carbon emissions produced by a website every time someone views its home page, and how it compares to all other websites that have been tested in this way.

The average per-page carbon emission figure for a typical website is 6.8g, according to Website Carbon. But bear in mind that most websites are hosted in fossil fuel data centres and haven’t been optimised to reduce their emissions.

At erjjio, our view is that a realistic and achievable target is 1.5g per page, or below.

Testing some big brand websites as examples, here are the results (as of March 2019).

Comparing the extreme ends of the spectrum, we should definitely be sending We Don’t Have Time’s climate warning to Squarespace, and climate love to Google!

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Test results for, starting from left: Squarespace Nike Facebook Microsoft and Google

To recap the earlier discussion, a website’s carbon emissions aren’t only influenced by the type of energy (renewable / fossil) that its hosting data centre uses. The other major variable is the size of the data that’s transferred between the server and the device (laptop / phone etc) when the website loads.

Videos that play in the background on website pages are very fashionable and look great, but they’re typically very large files (e.g. 10MB or larger). This has a major impact on the amount of electricity needed to store and transmit the file, and hence pushes up the carbon emissions.

Image files that haven’t been compressed are also the typical culprits for a high emission site.

If you test your own website and discover it has high emissions too, there are more free tools that can help you discover the culprit files.

Taking Squarespace as a particularly alarming example, we can run another type of test using Pingdom, as shown below.

The results below reveal why its emissions are so high: the page size is over 14MB, of which over 12MB are image files. This is extremely large — at erjjio, our view is that the target threshold for the entire page should be no larger than 2MB, and ideally closer to 1MB or below.

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Squarespace page size results in Pingdom

A word about Content Delivery Networks (CDN)

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Without CDN (left) and With CDN (right)

So, even if your primary hosting data centre is powered by 100% renewable energy, when you switch on a CDN this will most likely cause the website to fail the Green Web Foundation test because the site is now being cached across a whole network of fossil fuel data centres.

One of the most popular CDN providers is Cloudflare, as it’s affordable, easy to use and improves website security. At the time of writing, the North American section of their network is carbon neutral, but the rest of their global network is not, according to their blog article on the topic. When switching on their CDN for your website, data will be cached into their entire global network — it isn’t possible to isolate and use the green North American segment only.

At erjjio, our view is that where a CDN is really necessary, use Google Cloud. Unfortunately it’s complex to set up (we can do the hard work for you on this), but it’s powered by 100% renewable energy and is very flexible — you can specifically select which section(s) of their global network you need to use, rather than having to choose between all or nothing.

Take action — and send some climate love, ideas and warnings!

Let’s recap the steps you can take to reduce your own carbon footprint:

  1. Delete emails that you won’t need again, to prevent them being stored unnecessarily
  2. Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists that you never read
  3. Delete apps on your phone that you don’t use
  4. Delete redundant screenshots and photos from iCloud or other cloud drives
  5. Use your phone for quick Google searches instead of a laptop — it uses less energy

Then, try testing websites… particularly those that have huge numbers of visitors! Remember you can use the SimilarWeb extension for Chrome to check out any website’s volume of traffic.

If you discover that they’re using a green data centre already and have very low carbon emissions (< 1.5g per page), fantastic! Send them some climate love!!

If you discover they’re using a fossil fuel data centre and/or have high carbon emissions, encourage them to take action by sending them a climate idea, or indeed, a climate warning! Remember, very few people are aware of the environmental impact of the Internet — help them discover it!

If you’d like to learn anything more about this topic or get help with your own website, we’d love to hear from you.

Check out our website at https://erjjiostudios.com to get your FREE, 15 step Website Health Check report and apply for our free, exclusive Certified Green Website badge.

Or, simply drop us a line to arrange a chat! We’ll even plant a tree on your behalf simply for getting in touch, thanks to our partnership with the wonderful Eden Reforestation Projects.

About the author

He’ll be speaking live on this topic at the launch of We Don’t Have Time’s social network in Stockholm, on 22 April.

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Ben Clifford

Facts about We Don’t Have Time

Join us at wedonthavetime.org

We Don't Have Time

We Don’t Have Time is the worlds largest social network for climate action

We Don’t Have Time

Written by

We Don’t Have Time is a social network for climate action. Together we are the solution to the climate crisis.

We Don't Have Time

We Don’t Have Time is a social network for everyone who wants to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis. The power of many enables us to influence businesses, politicians and world leaders. But We Don’t Have Time to wait.

We Don’t Have Time

Written by

We Don’t Have Time is a social network for climate action. Together we are the solution to the climate crisis.

We Don't Have Time

We Don’t Have Time is a social network for everyone who wants to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis. The power of many enables us to influence businesses, politicians and world leaders. But We Don’t Have Time to wait.

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