“Ocean is a mighty harmonist”
– William Wordsworth
Oceans are a global force of nature forming the foundation of the blue planet on which we live. According to the World Wildlife Fund, oceans cover 71 percent of our planet’s surface and make up 95 percent of all space available to life. Oceans are a life-support system for Earth and a global resource providing us with free goods and services, from the food we eat to the oxygen we breathe.
What do oceans have to do with the internet? Greenhouse gas emissions*. The internet accounts for 3.7 percent of global carbon emissions, more than the amount produced by the shipping or aviation industry. More worryingly with the exponential growth of data and the majority of the world now connected to the internet, its carbon emissions are predicted to double by 2025. The Internet’s ecosystem consists of data centres, transmission networks, end-user devices, and websites. Today’s economy – particularly the digital economy from the internet and digital infrastructure to websites – is wasteful.
The internet consumes extraordinary amounts of energy. Ten percent of the world's total electricity is used to power the internet. From the global energy mix perspective, about 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuel sources. We tend to think of the internet as clean – as there are no residual or visible emissions – but the servers hosting all that data produce huge amounts of emissions, leaving a giant carbon footprint behind.
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”
— Robert Swan, Historian
This article takes a brief look at how the technology sector, and more specifically the internet and the digital world, can have a negative impact on the environment. It aims to offer an insight into how, as consumers and designers, we can help reduce our carbon footprint through sustainable practices and sustainable user experience. Technology has vastly improved our daily lives, with billions of devices using the internet and digital world every day. With every search, every click, every streamed video, several servers are triggered — a simple search on Google initiates a chain of reaction beyond your home to six to eight data centres around the world — consuming very real energy resources.
For consumers alone, keeping their carbon footprint to a minimum can be extremely challenging, and trying to slow the pace of technological advancements may seem counterintuitive. With technology connecting everyone and continuing to improve the quality of life, it is about becoming responsible in how we use technology. Those who are tasked with designing user experiences, software, or technology, can play a crucial role in this by encouraging users to ensure their technology usage is as green as possible.
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
— Marshall McLuhan
When designing user interfaces, it is advisable that steps are taken to make them more accessible and more readable. For example, user-friendly navigation and performance optimisation in websites and applications can contribute to a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.
When you or your business are looking for a hosting provider for your websites, from an environmentally sustainability perspective, it makes sense to use a data centre geographically near to your target audience. For example, you might find a cheap web hosting package from a US-based hosting company, but if your target audience is in the UK or Europe then energy will be unnecessarily wasted transmitting data across the Atlantic. One way data centres can curb their carbon footprint is by using more renewable energy, but there is still there’s a long way to go to offset the massive growth in internet traffic.
The Internet is a vast network connecting computers all over the world. Data centres that host all our data, transmission networks, and end-user devices, are all part of the internet’s ecosystem. The problem lies with how the internet is powered. Most of the electricity we generate comes from fossil fuels, by reducing carbon emissions through optimisation and switching to renewable green energy sources, we can move towards a cleaner, greener internet. To achieve this, policymakers and the technology industry as a whole need to do more to tackle the ever-growing demand for data and its associated high-energy consumption.
Responsible consumption of digital technologies plays an important role in this transition. From a software engineering perspective, some of the emerging themes of sustainable software engineering need to be embraced by everyone developing software. The way software is designed, developed, and deployed can have a major impact on energy consumption, for example, streamlined code does not only contribute to a better user experience but also reduced energy consumption. Anyone building, deploying, or managing applications should pay attention to the principles of Sustainable Software Engineering. In addition, organisations should include software in their sustainability efforts and look at their digital infrastructure. To create a balance, the key areas to be explored are how you as an organisation work with technology, where your platforms are hosted, and how they are powered.
Eco-Friendly Web Alliance (EFWA) — a partner of Sustainable Network — has embarked on a journey by setting the world’s first eco standard for websites and digital infrastructure. Environmental sustainability and economic prosperity can go hand-in-hand as we address the climate crisis in our transition towards a new net-zero economy. The scarcity of resources and the impact of their use mean that the digital infrastructure, digital products, and services of tomorrow will have to be radically different. In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, EFWA helps organisations succeed in this transition towards climate positivity through reducing carbon emissions and then taking responsibility by offsetting through regenerative farming or reforestation.
Leadership and innovative thinking are critical for developing a low-carbon economy and we all have a role to play in helping reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and doing our bit to address the huge challenges posed by climate change.
*Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions refers to the ‘Kyoto basket’ of greenhouses gases (GHGs) which includes all carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) emissions. In the article, the words ‘Carbon Emissions’ refer to CO2e or CO2 equivalent.