It’s time for the internet to become more sustainable

Planes, livestock, monster trucks – we know they have a significant carbon footprint. Digital businesses, on the other hand, sometimes go under the radar. Consider, for example, the carbon contribution of web search. All data held by websites is stored on servers and this requires energy. Data center, rooms filled to the ceiling, sometimes the size of many soccer fields — with rows upon rows of servers, they account for about one percent of global electricity consumption, according to the of the International Energy Agency (IEA) Tracking Report 2021.

Energy consumption by data centers has remained constant since at least 2010, according to the IEA report, even as Internet traffic has grown exponentially. The organization attributes the consistency in part to the continuing improvements in energy efficiency experienced by data center technologies. But the IEA also warns that global Internet traffic continues to grow. Between 2017 and 2020, traffic more than doubled and could double again by 2023, the report said. At some point, it makes sense to temper the web’s demand for energy. So what is needed in the search for a more sustainable web?

The sustainable web is just beginning…

The field of sustainable web design is still nascent, but there have been groups creating energy efficient sites and processes. Recently, a new coalition of American and European businesses and non-governmental organizations came together with a focus on the environmental impact of the Internet. The group includes organizations like The Green Web Foundation, which has a vision for a fossil-free internet by 2030and companies like EcoPingwhich boasts a number of tools to reduce the carbon footprint of websites.

The collaboration resulted in a platform, SustainableWebDesign.org, where web technology creators can find methods, recommendations and tools to help them create sustainable products and services. The basis of all coalition offerings is the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which includes six principles that touch on environmental impact, but also extend to social impact, as in truly embracing the triple bottom line. These principles include the use of clean energy, efficiency in the use of resources, as well as accessibility to all users and exploitation-free design.

…and needs your help

As for why an organization or business would align with the Sustainable Web Manifesto, the contributors presented a compelling argument for the urgency of climate change. They write: “The planet is experiencing unprecedented climate change and the Internet is both part of the problem and part of the solution. From websites to cryptocurrencies, the Internet consumes large amounts of electricity in data centers, telecommunications networks and end-user devices. If the internet were a country, it would be the 7th largest polluter in the world and expected to grow substantially by 2030.”

Climate impacts are a very practical consideration, as Tim Frick, president and founder of Mightybytes — a leading organization in the new coalition — told TriplePundit in an email interview: “…the climate crisis is here now . It is the existential crisis of our time. It impacts every business, nonprofit, government agency, and most importantly, every individual in the world, especially our most vulnerable communities.”

Frick adds that limiting greenhouse gas emissions to the extent necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement is a challenge. “Although it may seem daunting, progress begins with everyone taking one small step. This is ours,” he said.

Some small steps to take on the road to a cleaner web

Where can a web developer start? Well, according to Frick, who has been working on this progressive vision for the web since 2011, those involved in building websites should look at it as a learning journey. The coalition’s online hub listings strategies for every stage of the web development process, from design and development to “customer and project ethics”. Along the way, those serious about decarbonizing websites will learn how to estimate carbon emissions, make necessary adjustments for efficiency and performance, use green web hosts, and stay up-to-date via newsletters and other publications. The assets are all collected on the new website, ready to be used.

One of the coalition’s largest projects has been to develop a method for calculating digital emissions and incorporate it into existing tools. Standardization was key. “Our collective goal is to create resources that provide consistent estimates of emissions,” said Tom Greenwood, managing director of Wholegrain Digital, a London-based Certified B Corp, in a press release. “When you get different results from digital carbon calculators that are essentially meant to do the same thing, it sends a confusing message. This could lead people to underestimate emissions or worse, do nothing at all.”

The group recently met with the World Wide Web Consortium, creators of standards, to create guidelines similar to those established for the Web Accessibility Initiative, which found a positive consensus. Last year, for example, Colorado passed a law requiring state and local government websites to meet accessibility standards. As it builds digital sustainability standards, the coalition is actively seeking additional collaborators. Interested parties can contact Contact form of the Sustainable Design website.

Image Credit: Palace of Israel via Unsplash