The Internet’s environmental impact & how you can help

We all spend a large amount of our time online these days and there’s no doubt that the Internet has made our lifestyles easier. We connect wirelessly with our friends, family and colleagues all over the world; we stream our favourite music, films and TV shows on-demand; data syncs instantly across our various devices.

The Cloud sounds fluffy, light and innocent – a dreamy, virtual world with limitless storage, fast WiFi connections and no apparent machinery.

It’s no surprise therefore that most people overlook the Internet’s environmental impact. Few people are aware of how the Internet actually works, or how it contributes to climate change. It’s easy not to think about the impact our endless stream of data is having.

The reality is that digital technologies account for around 4% of global carbon emissions, which sounds relatively small but is actually similar to the aviation industry’s contribution – and if the Internet were a country, it would be the world’s 6th largest polluter!

How is this Internet pollution created and what can we do to help tackle it?

In this article we explore the opportunities to reduce our digital carbon emissions, with a particular focus on measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of websites.

The reality of our connections

The Internet is powered by a vast network of physical infrastructure. From data centres to transmission networks to the devices we hold in our hands, the transfer and mass storage of our data requires an enormous amount of energy. 

Data centers serve as factories of the information age; their 24/7 operation makes online browsing, streaming and communication possible, but delivering all this data requires a tremendous amount of electricity. The explosive demand of internet-based platforms and services has fueled a dramatic expansion in both the size and number of data centers, making them collectively one of the largest sources of new electricity demand globally.

Greenpeace ‘Clicking Clean’ campaign

The problem is that many of these data centres get their electricity from dirty fossil fuels rather than renewable sources, and the energy consumption of digital technology is increasing by 9% every year.

Over the last few years, several giants like Google, Facebook and Apple have committed to powering their data centres with 100% renewable energy, which is a good start. Unfortunately, Amazon Web Services (AWS), the world’s biggest cloud services provider, hasn’t yet made the same commitment – and the same goes for many other web hosting providers. 

Most people choose their website hosting company without realising that they use dirty fossil fuel energy.

Understanding your Internet carbon footprint 

Every time we use the Internet, data gets transferred between our device and the server that the website or software is hosted on. A server is essentially just a computer disk, which is usually stacked in a rack alongside thousands of others in a high-tech building called a data centre.

Each server is kept switched on and working 24/7, which requires electricity and air conditioning to keep it cool. Imagine leaving the computer at your office desk continuously switched on – most of us try to avoid this as we know it uses energy.

The difference with servers is that there’s no computer screen to look at, and they’re generally a lot more powerful and efficient than desktop computers.

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.

So the key is to be mindful and aware of the amount of data we use. 

By far the most significant contributor to our individual Internet carbon footprints is our use of online video, which generates 60% of world data flows and over 300 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Ideally we should all be trying to consume less video online and chilling our Netflix habit, but that’s much easier said than done – particularly while we’re all cooped up at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here are some simple and relatively painless opportunities to reduce your own footprint:

Trash files and photos that are no longer useful

Sometimes we abuse our cloud storage because we have no idea how much it impacts the environment. Well, now you know. Delete anything you don’t need anymore, to avoid the servers they’re stored on using energy unnecessarily.

Delete apps that are useless

We sometimes have a habit of leaving applications on our phones that we don’t actually use anymore. Run through your phone; are there any apps that you haven’t opened in three months? Delete them.

Use your phone more than your laptop

Your computer has a bigger screen and uses more power. It’s more efficient to use your phone, and isn’t a big inconvenience – particularly if you’re only doing quick searches etc.

Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists

We all get marketing emails and newsletters that we never open or read – particularly in our personal inboxes. The carbon footprint produced by the transmission and storage of each of these emails really stacks up over time. Try getting into the habit of unsubscribing when you receive an email from a sender that you’re not interested in.

Use Google Drive and Google Photos for cloud storage

Google operates some of the most energy-efficient data centres in the world, and is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, which makes Google Drive a great choice for storage of your files and photo archives.

Website carbon emissions

At erjjio we’re on a mission to power the world’s websites with clean, green energy and dramatically reduce the carbon emissions they produce.

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. 

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. 

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.

Airbnb traffic in SimilarWeb
Airbnb visitor data in the SimilarWeb extension for the Chrome browser

What is green web hosting?

A vital step to help reduce a website’s carbon emissions is to host it in a data centre which uses 100% renewable energy instead of fossil fuel electricity. But what is web hosting and how does it work?

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 server in 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.

Server racks in a typical data centre
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 web hosting provider.

How to test your website

Are you interested in checking whether a website is powered by fossil fuel electricity or renewables? It doesn’t have to be your own site – you can test anything!

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”).

Green Web Foundation
The Green Web Foundation’s free website checker

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

Using this innovative, free Website Carbon tool, you 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 currently 1.76 grams, 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 gram per page, or below. 

Testing some big brand websites as examples, here are the results (as of April 2020).

Amazon website carbon emissions
Amazon

Squarespace website carbon emissions
Squarespace
GoDaddy website carbon emissions
GoDaddy

To recap the earlier discussion, a website’s carbon emissions aren’t only influenced by the type of energy (renewable vs. 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 (i.e. several MB 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 Amazon as an example, we can run another type of test using a free tool called Pingdom

Amazon in Pingdom
Amazon page size results in Pingdom

The results above reveal why its emissions are relatively high: the page size is over 4MB, which is relatively large for a website and is mainly due to lots of images being used on the page. At erjjio, our view is that the target threshold for the entire page of a normal business website should not need to be any larger than 2MB, and ideally it should be closer to 1MB or below.

A word about Content Delivery Networks

Content Delivery Network (CDN) technology is very popular for speeding up website page loading speeds, as it shortens the physical distance that data has to travel between the visitor’s device and their nearest server.

This is also beneficial in terms of efficiency, as it significantly reduces the energy used in the transmission of data between the origin server and the visitor.

However, the mechanism is based on data being cached into an entire network of global data centres, instead of just a single one – and often these networks aren’t powered by renewables.

Connection to a data centre without a CDN in place
Without a CDN
Connection to a data centre with a CDN in place
With a CDN

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. In April 2019, they announced that they have committed to purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) to match 100% of the power used in their 175 data centres and 11 offices spread all over the world. This is very encouraging and ahead of all other CDN specialist providers, as far as we are aware.

At erjjio, our view is that it’s best to avoid using a CDN unless you have a significant number of international visitors – and of course to select a data centre that’s located in your country. If you’re not sure where it is, ask your hosting provider and they should be able to tell you.

Taking action and raising awareness

Now you know more about digital pollution, it’s time to take action!

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

  • Delete emails that you won’t need again, to prevent them being stored unnecessarily
  • Delete apps on your phone that you don’t use
  • Use your phone for quick Google searches instead of a laptop – it uses less energy
  • Unsubscribe from email newsletters and mailing lists that you never read
  • Use Google Drive and Google Photos for cloud storage

If you have a website of your own, you can test its carbon emissions using the Website Carbon tool. If you discover it’s not powered by green energy and you’d like to switch, check out planet-friendly hosting options.

If you’d like an even more detailed review of your website, we also offer a FREE website health check. You’ll get our expert advice and feedback, covering 15 factors relating to carbon emissions, design, security and search engine optimisation (SEO).

When you join us, we’ll even plant trees exclusively on your behalf every single month, through our partnership with the wonderful team at Eden Reforestation Projects.

Or simply drop us a line to arrange a chat – we’ll even plant a tree on your behalf simply for getting in touch 🙂

Together we can tackle the internet’s impact on the environment. 

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