It’s time for the internet to become more stable
Airplanes, cattle, monster trucks. we know they have a significant carbon footprint. Digital activities, on the other hand, sometimes fly under the radar. Consider, for example, the carbon contribution of web searches. All data stored by websites is stored on servers and this requires energy. Data centers, rooms filled to the ceiling, sometimes the size many football fields — server rows account for about one percent of global electricity use, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) 2021 Tracking Report.
Energy use by data centers has remained stable 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 continued improvements in energy efficiency that data center technologies have had. But the IEA also warns that global Internet traffic continues to grow. Traffic has doubled between 2017 and 2020 and could double by 2023, the report said. At some point, it makes sense to moderate the grid’s energy demand. So what does it take to find a more stable network?
The sustainable web is just getting started…
The field of sustainable web design is still new, but there have been groups that have created energy-efficient websites and processes. Recently, a new coalition of American and European businesses and non-governmental organizations came together to focus on the environmental impact of the Internet. The group includes organizations such as The Green Web Foundation, which has a vision for a Internet without fossils until 2030and businesses alike EcoPingwhich boasts a number of tools to reduce a website’s carbon footprint.
The collaboration has resulted in a platform, SustainableWebDesign.org, where web technology creators can find methods, recommendations, and tools to help them create sustainable products and services. Underlying all coalition proposals is the Sustainable Web Manifesto, which includes six principles which 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, resource efficiency, as well as accessibility for all users and non-exploitative design.
…and it needs your help
When asked why an organization or company would align with the Sustainable Web Manifesto, participants made a compelling case 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 is expected to grow significantly by 2030.”
Climate impact is a very practical consideration, as Tim Frick, president and founder of Mightybytes, one of the lead organizations in the new coalition, told TriplePundit in an email interview. It is the existential crisis of our time. It affects 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 achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement is a challenge. “Although it may sound scary, progress starts with everyone taking one small step. This is ours,” he said.
Some small steps to take on the road to a cleaner grid
Where does someone like a web developer start? Well, according to Frick, who has been working on this progressive vision of the web since 2011, those involved in building websites should consider it a learning curve. Listings of Coalition Online Centers strategies for every step of the web development process, from design and development to ‘client and project ethos’. 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 current with newsletters and other publications. All the resources are collected on the new site, ready to use.
One of the coalition’s biggest projects has been to develop a numerical emissions calculation method and incorporate it into existing tools. Standardization has been key. “Our collective goal is to create resources that provide consistent emission estimates,” Tom Greenwood, CEO of Wholegrain Digital, a London-based Certified B Corp, said in a press release. “When you get different results from digital carbon calculation tools that are basically designed to do the same thing, it sends a confusing message. This can lead to people underestimating emissions, or worse, not doing anything at all.”
The group recently met with the standards-setting World Wide Web Consortium to create guidelines similar to those established for the Web Accessibility Initiative, which successfully bid. Last year, for example, Colorado has passed a law requiring state and local non-governmental organization websites to meet accessibility standards. As it builds digital sustainability standards, the coalition is actively seeking additional collaborators. Interested parties may apply contact form From a sustainable web design site.
Image credit: Israel Palacio via Unsplash