In this edition we look at the concept of a digital carbon footprint, the associated challenges surrounding awareness and measurement, and how improvements can be made to reduce digital’s environmental impact so that it’s more sustainable for the future.
Awareness of digital carbon footprints is low
Most people don’t consider the impact that their technology usage, particularly technology that relies on being connected to the internet, has on the environment. As climate change awareness continues to rise, the contribution from connected devices can’t stay undercover for much longer. Total emissions created by connected devices is thought to be around 3.7% (comparable to the Aviation industry pre-pandemic) and it’s forecast to double by 2025. Therefore, creating mass awareness of the concept of a digital carbon footprint and enlightening both individuals and organisations on how they can reduce theirs is crucial in creating a sustainable digital future to help protect the planet.
Improving awareness of digital carbon footprints
We referenced DIMPACT in Mindset #3. It’s a collaborative project comprising of academic researchers and media companies that aim to, in their broad and collective reach, reduce the environmental impact of digital media. DIMPACT defines ‘digital media’ as video streaming, advertising, publishing, and business intelligence. It aims to both raise awareness of the associated problems and provide a tool that makes measurement of the downstream emissions (consumption, not production) possible and accurate. This tool isn’t yet available, but when ready it will be made available to organisations that provide digital media services on a subscription-based model. It may also provide organisations with a means to outwardly communicate their commitment to reducing their digital carbon footprint, which is likely become increasingly sought after by consumers as awareness of the topic grows. Making this digital carbon footprint visible can work in a similar way to organisations that are B-Corp certified. B-Corp organisations pledge to become more societally and environmentally responsible and in doing so, build stakeholder trust and advocacy as a result. Organisations that make their digital impact transparent and take actions to reduce it are making a commitment to the same environmental cause and can realise the same purpose-driven benefits.
3 things that determine connected devices' environmental impact
Measuring the internet’s impact and the hardware and software that relies on it is not straightforward. This is because the activities involved during the stages prior to something appearing on a device are often not visible and / or disclosed. Even if they are, calculating carbon emissions from each stage of the process is challenging due to multiple parties often being involved. For simplification (hopefully), these activities can be divided into 3 areas.
1. Manufacturing and shipping of hardware
There’s an environmental impact of creating connected devices; computers, smartphones, wearables, smart speakers, physical servers – all are created and distributed using supply chains. For example, understanding the manufacturing and distribution processes involved in creating the components used in a smartphone, and how they were assembled to create the final product is not possible. Neither is understanding the distance that each component travelled for it to be assembled into a finished product and the distance the physical product travelled to reach who bought it. Emissions are created during each stage of the process and different suppliers will have different standards and protocols they follow (and deem acceptable) with regards to their environmental impact.
2. Powering and cooling hardware
Hardware, in its many forms, is powered and cooled by electricity which is obtained from local grids. This power is generated through different means (coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables like wind and solar) which each have different levels of emissions and therefore impacts on the environment. How hardware is powered and cooled is geography-dependent; wherever you are using your devices, power is being drawn from a grid, and that grid is supplied by an energy source(s). Servers that power software are located in different physical locations, meaning that even if your own device(s) are charged by renewable means, the software used might be reliant on servers powered by grids that are not. The power used by data centres is forecast to use 8% of global electricity by 2030 so the need for data centres globally to be powered by renewable sources is imperative.
3. Software usage
Operating systems, websites and applications all generate carbon emissions. Much like measuring the impact of hardware, challenges exist over what is and isn’t visible. An email has an estimated carbon footprint of 4 grams of CO2e per email (CO2e is the unit used to measure the carbon footprint of all greenhouse gasses as if they were emitted as carbon dioxide) and an email with a large attachment has approximately 50 grams. Search engines use multiple servers each time a search is performed and create emissions as a result (estimates vary from 0.2 grams of CO2e to lower). Web browsers produce an average of 1.7 grams of CO2e per page view. Native smartphone apps require an initial download. How much energy that download requires is dependent on the application’s size, which is dependent on how it’s been designed and developed. How much energy that app uses depends on the data sources and systems that power and update it. Apps and websites with lots of real-time data will typically be connected to external sources using APIs (to send and retrieve data) to maximise their timeliness (such as train travel and flight aggregator apps). Those that use a CMS to dynamically serve content and create pages on demand can require significant processing power (which drains energy from batteries) and frequent communication with servers.
How to reduce our digital carbon footprint
We have separated these actions into two groups for simplification; those that typically consume (Individuals) and those that create (Organisations). There is some crossover between both groups for platforms like social media and personal websites, but hopefully, the separation is useful in providing discrete actions that can be taken by both.
Turn off auto-play; this can typically be done within your browser and app settings. Consider if a text-only or audio equivalent exists for what you’re watching. Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to watch it (providing you’ve followed step 1). Watch less streaming and VOD services.
Limit reply-all because fewer recipients means less data transferred and downloaded. Delete emails you’ll never need again; it will free up space locally on your devices and on servers. Unsubscribe from newsletters you don’t read.
Shut down your hardware
Turn things off and you won’t be using energy that you needn’t be. The average laptop burns between 50-100 watts per hour whilst in use and 1/3 of that in sleep mode.
If your device is plugged into a charger but the power is off, it still draws power. Unplug it to save energy.
Dim your monitor
This reduces the amount of energy used, reducing the frequency of charges (if the device is battery powered).
Use the web address if you know it and don’t rely on search engines that use more data and therefore energy. Bookmark URLs to help with this.
Evaluate your hosting partner and ensure you’re using one with sustainable credentials that runs on 100% renewable energy, so that every web or app session delivered by their data centres is powered by a sustainable source. Data centres are given a Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) rating which is calculated by assessing how that data centre generates energy and how efficiently the equipment in the data centre is run (e.g. Lights, machine-cooling etc.). The lower the PUE ratio, the more efficiently the data centre is operating so choose a provider with a low ratio.
Try and use a provider with data centre(s) geographically close to your user base. The transmission of data is done through telecommunications networks, so the further data must travel, the more energy that’s used in getting it to its destination. Longer distances can also have a negative performance impact too as load times can be increased. If your platform has a user base that’s geographically distributed, a Content Delivery Network (CDN) can be used to deliver content from a network of data centres, with the closest to the request being used, reducing the data-to-destination distance.
The Green Web Foundation provides a useful resource that provides sustainable hosting providers categorised by country.
By optimising a website or app for search rankings, you can help people find what they’re looking for faster with fewer page visits and / or downloading fewer irrelevant apps, reducing the amount of energy used in the process.
Brevity = quicker to read. Long-form has its place but be precise and succinct.
Caching enables files to be loaded on first use and stored for subsequent sessions, improving page load times, and reducing energy used.
Streamlined UX with minimal friction to maximise goal completion reduces session times and unnecessary page loads.
Images are the main contributors to websites’ page weights. The more images and the larger their size, the more data that needs to be transferred and the more energy used. In some use cases, images can be eliminated without diminishing the user experience. When they can’t, vector graphics like SVGs can help reduce the total page weight and consider displaying in carousels to reduce the number of page loads. Images can also be compressed to reduce their size and the amount of compression that’s acceptable is subjective. Image dithering, where colours are kept to a minimum to reduce the file size, can also be used, often in combination with compression to maximise efficiency.
Given its popularity across dominant platforms, video is a big issue in the fight for digital sustainability as files are typically large and processor-intensive which drains devices’ batteries. If videos can’t be totally removed, consider if they can be reduced in volume. Make sure auto-play is turned off to reduce the total number of streams. Also consider if formats like GIFs, which are considerably smaller than video and can animate will convey what’s required.
Given the abundance of visual clutter audiences are bombarded with, consider offering them content and services in audio format. Many newsletters provide the option to hear rather than read. Some websites and apps with editorial focuses do this too (such as Forbes). If your website is powered by AWS, you can use the Amazon Polly API to read the text aloud.
Web fonts can have large file sizes and increase page weights. System fonts can be used without loading font files as they’re installed on most operating systems. If certain web fonts must be used (e.g. for brand typefaces), then keep them to a minimum so multiple fonts don’t need loading. Use formats like WOFF which are lighter than older formats like TTF.
Designing webpages that are not created dynamically (as sites powered by CMS’ are) means that servers use less energy sending and receiving data. Some sites might not need a CMS or even a database to determine what’s shown and in such cases loading only static files can be perfectly suitable. Website generators that convert files from a CMS into static ones can also be used. There are a range of options, the most suitable will depend on the function of your website – if its primary role is to deliver content and information, tools such as Hugo or Jeckyl are likely to do what’s needed. If it’s providing richer, more participative functionality for users akin to native apps, then something like GatsbyJS or NextJS are worth investigating.
Collective responsibility to change
Given humanity’s increasing dependence on connected devices, there’s a collective responsibility from both individuals and organisations to create the behavioural change needed to reduce our digital carbon footprint. Organisations have a responsibility to create widespread awareness of the environmental impact. They also have a responsibility to minimise their impact throughout their own value chain and ecosystem irrespective of the category they operate in. Organisations should transparently communicate the impact of their upstream (production) and downstream (consumption) activities.
Individuals also have a responsibility to change their digital behaviours so that they’re helping to minimise the carbon contribution that their connected devices’ usage has. If everyone becomes more conscious of their impact and acts responsibly, the cumulative effect can be huge.< View all mindset editions