Reducing the Web’s carbon footprint

We’ve switched to hybrid cars, LEDs and meatless burgers, now it’s time to turn our attention towards the less-trodden path of the Internet’s carbon footprint. What can we do as individuals, as developers and as customers to give the Web a greener hue?

On an individual basis, we should remember that pretty much anything that extends battery time will reduce the power needs of the device. And actions that extend battery time can probably be mirrored on a laptop, so much of the following can be applied to both: 

  • Reduce the brightness of your screen – your eyes will thank you
  • Set the screen to ‘dark’ mode
  • Reduce the screen lock time so it goes to sleep more often 
  • Turn off vibration mode if you don’t need it
  • Close apps or windows when you’ve finished with them
  • Turn off Bluetooth when not needed
  • Use low power mode whenever you can

A quick glance at my iPhone shows that, even though I swipe Apps up and off on a weekly basis, there are still currently 54 sucking up power. And I’ve never closed a single tab on Chrome so it has 51 open. Not any more! 

When we build websites, developers and designers should also be mindful of their responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. A handy rule of thumb is anything that reduces page weight and load time will lower power requirements. And, oh happy coincidence, we’re generally aiming for that anyway because we want users to have a fast and premium experience. Let’s:

  • Write lean, clean code. There’s pride to be had in how few lines it takes to write a function so a healthy sense of competition can help here. 
  • Reduce the number of fonts that need loading to render a page. Designers, take note. 
  • Optimise images or videos so they are compressed without loss of quality. And consider if we need them at all.
  • Load images at the correct scale rather than resizing via CSS.
  • Reduce Javascript as it adds weight to the page.
  • Set targets for page weights and keep to them.
  • Remove any unused plugins on WordPress or similar.
  • Block bots and other unnecessary trawlers.

Search Engine Optimisation also lowers energy needs as a fortunate byproduct. SEO helps users get to the information they want quickly by ranking the most relevant results first. Hence, we avoid burning energy by trawling around the Internet on a wild goose chase. The algorithm that Google uses for ranking results is a constantly changing industrial secret but we know that copy plays a large part in how it decides what a website is about, and whether it meets the search query. Government websites tend to score well naturally in SEO as (a) we’re the only organisation providing that service and don’t have competitors to outrank and (b) our sites tend to be text-heavy as we are in the business of providing information. Still, we should make sure that, when we write copy, we use words and phrases that the chosen audience would use and not industry (or departmental) jargon. ‘Bulky waste’ anyone? 

Broadening our perspective even further, infrastructure also has a role to play in reducing the Internet’s carbon footprint. If we host on servers located in energy-efficient buildings that use minimal energy for cooling then emissions will be lower. Deserts in California or Nevada might not be the best option after all. We would also be wise to choose data centres near sources of renewable energy. There’s a reason why Iceland, with its cool climate and 100% renewable geothermal and hydropower, is a hotspot for data centres. All this needs weighing up, however, with how close your website visitors are to your data centre. 93.75% of Hackney’s are in the UK so it is likely inefficient for our servers to be based in the US, however cheap the hosting and however renewable the energy. 

These are just some of the ways in which we can all help the Web get greener. Probably the simplest option for us to reduce the Web’s carbon footprint is to just stop looking at it for an hour and go for a walk instead. With more and more sites geared towards ‘engagement’ whose aim is to suck us into endless scrolling, streaming and clicking, we should make resistance a point of pride. Stroll not Scroll may be my new motto!

Take action

See how green your host is with the Green Web Foundation.

Calculate your site’s carbon impact with this Website Carbon Calculator.

4 thoughts on “Reducing the Web’s carbon footprint”

  1. Food for thought here for all of us, Susan. My previous IT department, in a university School of Geography, has started fanning cool winter air into the server room, and winter heat from the server room into office spaces, using EcoSync smart heating technology.

    They hope to save an estimated 23 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year and cut £7k off their annual energy bill.

    PS Love your “bulky waste” comment. I was once accused of “not presenting your receptacle correctly”. 🙂

    1. Oh that made me laugh!
      EcoSync sounds like such a no-brainer, why isn’t everyone doing it? It makes no sense to heat a room next to a room that’s too hot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.